The topic of single-pilot commercial aircraft has been around for some time, but it got a big push from an unlikely source recently.
How Does A One-Pilot Cockpit Work?
Major aircraft used for commercial flight requires at least two pilots in the cockpit with the exception of bathroom breaks or emergencies while in flight. It’s been proposed that all modern aircraft should be able to be operated remotely (in the case of an issue with the controls onboard) and in-flight command reduced to a single pilot.
One proposal has been that a remote pilot would connect to the aircraft virtually, and assist the pilot-in-command with sensitive elements of flight like take-off and landing, but the pilot-in-command would do all of the flying onboard.
Another is that there is no virtual pilot but rather technology takes a greater role and the pilot is more or less there for critical aspects of the flight and to ensure the system is operating properly or taking over in the case of an emergency.
The concept of a one-pilot commercial flight has had a mixed reception.
Boeing CEO Suggests Integration With Auto-Flying Tech
At the delivery of the final 747 off the assembly line, the end of an era also brought questions of what comes next. Boeing CEO, Dave Calhoun suggested that self-flying planes could be the future:
“Autonomy is going to come to all of the airplanes eventually,” Calhoun said on the sidelines of an event commemorating the final delivery of its iconic 747 jumbo jet in Everett, Washington. “The future of autonomy is real for civil” aviation, he said.” – Bloomberg
Complete autonomy seems a distant possibility, but it could be the eventual future of travel.
Support For One-Pilot Cockpits
There’s a model for complete autonomy in flying humans for commercial purposes. SpaceX does this when it delivers astronauts to the International Space Station completely autonomously. The FAA and NASA permit SpaceX to fly autonomously over US airspace, including experimental rockets like the Starship and more proven types in the Falcon and its self-landing rocket boosters.
However, crowded airspace and ground traffic could pose a bigger problem. SpaceX has the benefit of a cleared airspace and a single flight path but Tesla, for example, has a tougher time navigating real-world busy environments.
Of course, RyanAir would love to see a single-pilot cockpit to save money on wages and keep flight prices low, and has been fighting for the cause for more than a decade.
As we have discussed in the past and as recently as last week, the pilot shortage is a real and widespread. The reality is that a two-pilot cockpit will either mean new pilots (though we aren’t currently pacing to effectively replace retirees), bigger aircraft on some routes, large price increases due to limited supply, or some sort of adjustment to the cockpit.
As recently as 2003, Delta and Northwest Airlines were flying their 727s with a three-person cockpit (captain, first officer, and engineer) which finally went away. The DC-10 had a three-person cockpit and Northwest retired that equipment as late as 2007. Older 747 models had the same requirement. It’s madness to consider a third person required in the cockpit now as computers have replaced the need for an engineer but it really wasn’t that long ago that aircraft were flying that needed a third person.
It could be just a matter of time where the second pilot goes away too.
In severe crashes like Air France 447, even with three pilots in the cockpit, they stuggled with the most basic principle in aviation, overcoming a stall. Software, confusion, and weather all played a factor.
A recent case against a one-pilot cockpit is the recent runway incursion at New York JFK International Airport. In defense of those American Airlines pilots in the 777 cockpits that crossed an active runway, the union explained that the pilots had too many tasks to manage following new procedures by the airline.
“The operational changes that management is attempting to implement without fulsome training alters how pilots communicate, coordinate, and execute flight safety duties at some of the most high-threat times of flight. These high-threat times include, but are not limited to, rejected takeoffs, low visibility approaches, and go-arounds.” – APA Statement via Live And Let’s Fly
To that end, in the JFK incursion incident, because it was prior to take-off three pilots were in the cockpit at the time (the third sits for take-off and landing but is there for adequate crew rest.) If three pilots are struggling with procedural updates “by bulletin” as the APA notes, reducing hands-on controls in the cockpit seems like a bad idea.
The Boeing 737-MAX program suffered two fatal crashes due to software that was incorrectly operating. Human pilots onboard fought those computers and the adjustments the software made to the aircraft all the way to their fiery ends. It was the software trimming the aircraft against what the plane needed that doomed those flights. How much harder will it be for a single pilot to overcome failing software if automation is problematic?
Germanwings 9525 crashed after a suicidal pilot locked out the captain during a bathroom break. Protocols now exist to have a secondary crew member in the cockpit (usually a flight attendant) whenever a pilot leaves in case of pilot incapacitation or something more nefarious. Some remarked at the time that a remote piloting system that could have taken control of the jet (assuming it would know what was taking place) could have saved those passengers, crew, and hull but such a system couldn’t be turned off onboard the aircraft. That creates two problems, first, if the software is the issue, now the pilots in the front of the aircraft are fighting a system that cannot be disabled, and alternatively, if it can be disabled, we really aren’t any safer than before.
Boeing CEO Calhoun’s statements about an eventual move to automated flight controls may be an off-hand comment, but as the world grapples with a pilot shortage and as technology truly improves (in the case of SpaceX but not necessarily Tesla) automation can provide further assurances. However, the technology and our trust in it completely remains further off. Will that technology and trust make up needed ground before we are at critical points in the pilot shortage? Time will tell.
What do you think? Is a one-pilot cockpit in our future (near or far?) Will automation eventually completely replace pilots altogether? Or will we remain with a two-pilot minimum in perpetuity?