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Could Commercial Pilots Soon Be Flying Solo?

Airlines and regulators worldwide are pushing to move to just one pilot on select commercial flights. Over 40 countries, including the UK and Germany, have requested assistance from the United Nations’ aviation body, the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation, in order to make safe, single-pilot flights a reality.

The aviation industry has been on a long path to reach this point. Back in the 1950s, a typical cockpit could consist of five staff: a captain, a first officer or co-pilot, a flight engineer, a navigator and a radio operator. But as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have improved, fewer and fewer cockpit staff have been required to operate planes. Efficiency is a prime driver of change in an industry with often astronomically high overhead costs, but passengers should be reassured by consistent downward trends on aircraft fatalities and a number of other crucial safety indicators.

Chris Kempis, director of flight operations at Cathay Pacific, described the move towards safe single-pilot operations as “the unavoidable challenge” the industry must face. Janet Northcote, head of communications for the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the group leading the effort, argued they “are potentially removing the last piece of human redundancy from the flight deck” by replacing the second pilot’s responsibilities with AI technology.

The move would reduce costs for carriers significantly. It is hoped this would also drive down passenger fares. Such measures would also ease pressure on ongoing crew shortages. In 2021 the FAA issued only 4,928 ATP’s – the license required to fly commercially – which is less than half the number of pilots that carriers intended to hire in 2022. Pilots require 1,500 hours of flight time before being fully licensed and so rapidly pushing through pilots has simple logistical difficulties that are hard to overcome.

Calls for single-pilot flights have been met with some concern by some members of the industry. Tony Lucas, Airbus SE A330 Captain for Qantas and President of the Australian and International Pilots Association, has expressed concern over the potential for a solo pilot to be overwhelmed in an emergency situation. He insists, “when things go awry, they go awry fairly quickly”. He sees the second pilot as a failsafe against such a situation.

Stories such as the Miracle on the Hudson, in which the captain and first officer of a US Airways plane remarkably landed an engineless Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, continue to reinforce to passengers the notion that more pilots equate to safer flights. One industry expert noted, “commercial airline passengers absolutely expect and deserve two pilots in the cockpit.”

But the EASA are insistent that solo flight operations will have absolute safety guarantees before implementation. In their working paper, delivered to the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation, they insisted “necessary enablers” will be created in order to properly introduce “optimised crew/single-pilot operations” as they intend to make sure they can promise “an equivalent or higher level of safety compared to that achieved in current operations.”

EASA assured stakeholders that “these concepts will not be implemented until the aviation community is comfortable that operations will be at least as safe as they are today.” Such checks will include assurances that pilot workloads remain manageable and that cockpit technology is “appropriately tolerant” of pilot errors.

It is believed that automated systems would be able to detect a pilot becoming suddenly unconscious and be able to seamlessly initiate a pre-programmed landing process at the nearest possible airport. Such technology is unlikely to be fully tested before 2030 but there are more immediate hopes that AI could drive efficiency and reduce costs.

Something the industry refers to as “optimised crew” scheduling could see automation facilitate two, rather than three, operation pilots servicing long-haul flights. Technology could allow solo piloting in low-risk cruising scenarios, allowing alternating breaks with one pilot, plus the automation system, operating the plane whilst the second rests in the cabin.

Airbus has said they are looking into how cockpits could be adjusted to facilitate a move. While this will require short-term investment, safety benefits and savings should increase in the medium and long term.

There is still some way to go before solo flights are commonplace. But with the technology available, and with forecast reductions to costs, it seems highly likely we will see optimised crew scheduling very soon.

According to Boeing Co. Southeast Asia President Alexander Feldman, “the psychological barriers are probably harder than the technological barriers”. Ultimately, he insists, it is about changing the feelings of the regulators and the general public. It is about making them “feel comfortable”. Once this is done, he believes, solo flights will only be a matter of time.

Image via Getty Images

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