Sometime in the not too distant future, we may see commercial aircraft operating with just one pilot. As aircraft automation and autopilots improve, many airlines and regulators are questioning the need for two pilots. There are always challenges with such major changes, but reviews into its viability are already underway.
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The two-person cockpit
Everyone in the aviation industry is now very used to two pilots in an aircraft cockpit. This is the norm for all commercial aircraft (although of course, longer flights may take additional pilots for crew rotation). This was not always the case.
In earlier days of aviation, there were more people on the flight deck. There was more to be done, with navigation tasks, handling of radios and communication, and engine control and monitoring. As systems and automation improved, this lessened. By the jet age in the 1950s and 1960s, a cockpit crew of three was standard, although on larger jets (including the Boeing 707) operating over water, a fourth navigator was often required.
The two-person cockpit started to be seen from the late 1960s, but was not considered standard for larger aircraft until the 1980s.
The Boeing 747 and Concorde, for example, both originally operated with a crew of three. It was not until the launch of the Boeing 747-400 in 1989 that a two person cockpit was standard. The Boeing 737 broke new ground (and took on US labour unions) when it launched in 1968 with a two person cockpit. Even by the time of the Boeing 757/767 in the early 1980s, it was still contentious. The 767 tested with three pilots, and one operating airline converted the standard two person cockpit back to three.
Proposing a one person cockpit
For at least 40 years now, the two person cockpit has been taken as standard. All cockpit and flying procedures in commercial aircraft are designed this way, with different responsibilities for the pilot flying and the pilot monitoring.
Throughout this time though, aircraft systems have continued to improve. Much more aircraft flying and control is now automated, with multiple computers and autopilot systems. This has led to discussion in recent years about single pilot operation. The possibility of this became more formalised in 2022, with requests from over 40 countries to the ICAO to review single pilot operations and necessary procedures to support this. Analysis is in early stages (you can see the initial 2022 ICAO report here), but the EASA has already expressed the opinion that single pilots services in some areas could start as early as 2027.
Would a single pilot be safe?
Those pushing for one pilot operations cite the increasing automation in flight systems and controls, and increasing reliability. The ICAO initial report explains how this would change:
“In recent decades, automation in the cockpits has progressively increased, while the continued focus in pilot training has remained largely on stick and rudder skills. These proposals are not simply a change from two crew members to one, it is a paradigm shift toward a pilot flying alone at the controls of large commercial aircraft. This inevitably involves a change to the role of the pilot, towards becoming a systems manager, over a physical flyer.”
There is no doubt that aircraft automation has improved, and with it pilot workload has decreased. The latest Airbus and Boeing auto-land systems, for example, can physically land an aircraft without pilot input. They cannot make radio calls, or taxi to gates (yet), however. There are also further possibilities of more increased automation, and potential ground control involvements.
On the other hand, would a single pilot be a safety risk? Many pilots and others warn of the dangers. There are issues in pilot alertness, fatigue and attention when operating alone.
Even worse, how would incapacitation of the one pilot be handled? Further improvements in automation, and potential ground intervention are key to develop safeguards in this area. Stricter medical standards for single pilots would be a possibility as well.
The need for fast thinking and rapid response when problems occur is a major concern too. Will a single pilot handle this as well? There are several past aircraft accidents which challenge this (such as Air France Flight 447 in 2009, where the captain was away from the cockpit, and US Airways Flight 1549 where the actions of the two pilots working together got the aircraft safely down on the Hudson River).
Tony Lucas, an Airbus A330 pilot and president of the Australian & International Pilots Association, sums this up well in reporting in Fortune. He explains:
“The people going down this route aren’t the people who fly jets every day. When things go awry, they go awry fairly quickly.”
The economic argument
Many airlines are supporting such a proposal. As long as it is proved safe, there would be significant cost savings with less pilots, and potentially the possibility to schedule more flights. There is a predicted upcoming pilot shortage (likely to be most acute in the US and for smaller airlines). Any way to alleviate this will be well received – although there are other options under consideration, such as raising pilot retirement age.
The situation is not necessarily so straightforward though. The ICAO already warns of this. It highlights that although losing one pilot will reduce operational expenses, there are additional cost considerations. These include the increased competence levels needed for single pilots, new cockpit designs and procedures, and additional ground support and communication.
There are other challenges too. Pilots warn that it could harm pilot training and mentoring. Procedures are well established for pilots to refresh or train as part of a two-person crew. Single pilot operations would make such training slower and more difficult.
The idea of single pilot operations may be frightening to many. But the thinking was probably the same when cockpit crews were gradually reduced to two, or when four engines became two.
It is no doubt a difficult analysis for ICAO and aviation regulators. Aircraft have certainly changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s, and this needs to be reflected. Of course, safety remains paramount, but the nature of aviation is that it will never be 100% safe. Any change is likely to be gradual. Airlines that are behind the plan have already suggested operations could start with cargo flights.
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