Will commercial aircraft soon be flown by a single pilot?

While regulators, airlines, and aircraft manufacturers are exploring the possibilities of single-pilot operations, unions are pushing back
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Airlines and manufacturers have been testing the likelihood of, and the technology for implementing, single pilot operations in some capacity.  

However, even before the concept can be enacted, other stakeholders within the industry have been pushing back against the technology, including some of the most famous names in aviation. 

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who, together with his first officer Jeffrey Skiles, famously managed to land a US Airways Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in New York, the United States (US), has been vocal about his wariness of single-pilot operations. 

“Having only one pilot in a commercial aircraft flies in the face of evidence and logic. One way we have made commercial aviation ultra safe is by having two fully-qualified and experienced pilots in every cockpit,” he stated in April 2018. 

“Every safety protocol we have is predicated on having two pilots work seamlessly together as an expert team cross-checking, backing each other up, managing the workload, catching and correcting errors – even collaborating wordlessly in situations where the time pressure and workload are so great there is not even time to talk about what has happened and what must be done,” Sully continued.  

Pushback from pilots 

However, Sully has not been the only pilot to push back against single-pilot operations in any form. 

In January 2023, Sully, alongside Jason Ambrosi, the President of the International Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), co-authored a blog post titled “Two Pilots on Every Airline Flight Deck Makes the Difference” to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson”.   

In the post, the pair highlighted the importance of having at least two trained pilots in the cockpit.    

They wrote: “On the 14th anniversary of the Hudson River landing of US Airways Flight 1549, airline pilots around the globe intuitively recognize how two qualified, experienced, and trained aviators working as a team on the flight deck saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew. And that’s why pilots—who are entrusted to keep the flying public safe—recoil when we hear of proposals to operate airliners with fewer or even no pilots on the flight deck.” 

On March 27, 2023, ALPA, together with the European Cockpit Association (ECA) and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA), announced that the unions had formed a coalition “to prevent airlines and manufacturers from pushing ahead with plans to remove pilots from the flight deck, a profit-driven scheme that poses a significant safety risk”.  

The associations “vowed to take collective action to protect the flying public and counter an aggressive corporate-led lobbying campaign targeting regulators around the world, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)”. 

The three unions, also supported by the Associations of Star Alliance Pilots (ASAP), oneworld Cockpit Crew Coalition (OCCC), and SkyTeam Pilots Association (SPA), established a website with the domain safetystartswith2.com. The site highlights a study, conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, a market research firm based in the US, which stated that only 15% of surveyed US residents said that they would be “comfortable as an airline passenger on an airplane that was completely pilotless versus 81% who say that they would be not very/not at all comfortable with this)”. 

The study was conducted on behalf of ALPA and was based on interviewing 1,109 US-based (including Alaska and Hawaii) adults, aged 18 and over, online. It was published in July 2018. 

The study continued: “In fact, the majority would refuse to fly on an airplane whose planes were automated (e.g., pilotless) instead of an airline with pilots in the cockpit even if their airfare was 10% (77%), 20% (71%), or 30% (66%) cheaper – and this is especially true for women, adults over the age of 55, and those with no children living at home.”  

Furthermore, the study found that “three quarters of Americans (75%) believe that airlines should be responsible for funding the research that looks at using computers to fly airliners, given that it is airlines that are interested in removing pilots from the cockpit of passenger and cargo planes to save money”. 

Regulators exploring single-pilot operations 

However, regulators are not rushing to approve airlines to fly with a single pilot in the cockpit just yet and are continuing to conduct research. 

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), for example, is currently operating an ongoing project with the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) to assess Extended Minimum Crew Operations – Single Pilot Operations (eMCO – SiPO). 

EASA has tasked NLR with looking into two areas, both of which are detailed on the regulator’s website.  

First, “issues and the feasibility of the implementation of eMCOs in the EU regulatory framework by 2025 by developing a reference risk-assessment framework and investigating a series of key safety hazards and mitigations”. And second, NLR has been studying “the issues and the feasibility of the implementation of SiPOs in the EU regulatory framework by 2030 through a preliminary analysis of the related main safety hazards”. 

EASA dedicated €930,000 ($1.01 million) to the project, which is due to finish in August 2024. 

The agency aims to address several critical areas: pilot workload, pilot error situations, pilot incapacitation, fatigue, sleep inertia, and breaks due to physiological needs.  

A real-life example of these issues came into play on March 23, 2023, when a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) to Columbus John Glen International Airport (GMH) was forced to turn back to LAS because the captain of the Boeing 737-700 had become incapacitated mid-flight. An off-duty pilot from another airline was onboard the flight and assisted, becoming the pilot monitoring (PM), while the flight’s First Officer was the pilot flying (PF) the narrow-body jet. 

The pilot was lucky that an off-duty crew member was onboard the flight, as, according to Transport Canada’s (TC) informational page about pilot incapacitation, “tasks such as ATC [Air Traffic Control – ed. note] communication increase during an emergency”. Furthermore, a pilot would be under “stress”, which is why they should provide themselves with “the maximum margin for error”. 

In a paper published in July 2021 about eMCO and SiPO, the ECA stated that “the single pilot concept does not protect against the potential incapacitation of one pilot”.  

The paper continued: “To date, EASA has not demonstrated that the same incapacitation-related fatal accident risk of 2-pilots can be maintained with only one pilot in the cockpit, given that the 2nd pilot reduces this risk by a factor of 1.000 (‘1% rule’).”  

Studying reduced-crew operations 

Meanwhile, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also conducted their own research in 2017, allowing 36 pilots to fly the Boeing 737-800 in a simulator in three different crew conditions. These were two-crew, reduced crew operations (RCO), or single-pilot operations (SPO). 

The study, published in September 2017, replicated a real-life scenario of a flight between Denver International Airport (DEN) and Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ), including “a live controller and various pseudo pilots tied into the simulation radio to emulate ATC for realism and to maintain realistic pilot workload levels”. Furthermore, to avoid Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) or Crew Resource Management (CRM)-related conflicts, all participants were paired with pilots from the same airline. 

Six different non-normal experimental scenarios were put forward. “The scenarios modulated workload and automation issues (e.g., by the availability of the autopilot after the failure) and flight crew awareness and monitoring during the normal/non-normal operation,” NASA explained. The agency also noted that the scenarios began “at either the Top-of-Climb (TOC) or approximately 15 minutes before the Top-of-Descent (TOD) along the nominal flight plan”. 

Simulating normal revenue flight conditions, the study looked into eight workload factors, including, but not exclusive to, “the number, urgency, and complexity of operating procedures”, “the degree and duration of concentrated mental and physical effort involved in normal operation and in diagnosing and coping with malfunctions and emergencies”, and “the possibility of increased workload associated with any emergency that may lead to other emergencies”. 

Following the simulations, pilots were allowed to give feedback. 

The study found that “the data supports the criticality of the human’s role and the adaptability of human pilots/flight crew that is instrumental in overcoming non-normal conditions and in completing safe recoveries, even in SPO”. Furthermore, pilots were able to share tasks, enlist help from such sources as ATC or the dispatch center, “and perform actions and make the proper decisions in enough time to safely complete the flight within acceptable flight performance limits”. 

The study also noted that “single pilot operations are not nominally acceptable due to the significant task demands and workload”. Even if participants did not feel negatively about RCO, the results suggested that “there are identified technology and regulatory hurdles for RCO, in particular, the inertia due to sleep or rest for the resting pilot in terms of how quickly and effectively they can come back to full effectiveness”.  

The topic of pilot incapacitation was also raised with the study finding that “pilot monitoring of the pilot flying for incapacitation and impairment would be critical as well as monitoring of the actions of the pilot flying”. 

The study also highlighted that more technological advancements are needed to enable RCO or SPO, increasingly autonomous systems “with new functionalities, responsibilities, effective human-autonomy teaming, using natural language and gestures for example, and robustness” being some of the technologies that would enable single-pilot operations.  

However, NASA noted that the greatest obstacle to the development of single pilot aircraft is not “the technology per se but applying the technology and developing the automation and user interfaces”. 

“These data suggest that while it may be true that new technologies are not needed, we don’t have the knowledge to effectively employ these technologies, nor to create the functionality that would be required with the requisite reliability and robustness, as well as the adaptability and predictability to safety implement SPO and RCO today,” NASA concluded in its review of the study. 

Airbus, for example, has been testing these technologies. In June 2021 it was revealed that the manufacturer had been working with Cathay Pacific on “Project Connect”, a program to develop a technology to reduce the number of crew members needed on long-haul flights from three or four to just two. As a result, airlines would be able to reduce the number of pilots they would need in general, which is an attractive proposition considering the unrelenting global pilot shortage. 

By January 2022, Project Connect was “still very much in its conceptual stage,” according to a Cathay Pacific spokesperson cited by CNN.  

While development of the technologies is progressing, airlines and manufacturers will still need to overcome vocal opposition from several pilot unions and aviation professionals across the globe. Supporters of the concept will also need to sway public opinion if a single pilot operating a commercial flight – or even certain stages of the flight – is to become a reality. 

AeroTime approached Airbus and Cathay Pacific for comment. 

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