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Airliners Need More Than One Pilot and a Digital Dog

Twenty years ago the chairman of a major international airline, himself an experienced pilot, told me a joke that rings even more true today. “When I started flying, we had five people in the cockpit: captain, first officer, flight engineer, navigator and radio operator. Then they got rid of them one by one,” he said, counting off the lost seats. “Today we have just two.”

“But in 20 years, it’ll be just one. Plus a dog,” he told me, waiting for the obvious question: What’s the dog for? “To bite the pilot if he touches anything!”

If recent moves by the aviation industry are any indication, airlines will need to start dog training soon. 

Single-pilot cockpits could be a reality by as soon as 2027 as cost-cutting measures and personnel shortages spur executives to seek ever smaller flight teams. The first phase of this skeleton-crew rollout would be what’s called extended minimum crew operations, where two pilots would be there for the critical takeoff and landing phases of flight, with just one on deck during the main cruise portion of the journey.

That’s a prelude to the end goal: Single-pilot operations involving just one person flying a $200 million, 200-ton tube of metal at 550 miles per hour at 40,000 feet with more than 300 people on board. 

Airlines, and even aircraft manufacturers, don’t have the courage to put their names to this new push, so they’re letting other groups do the lobbying for them. Operators benefit from lower staff costs, but aerospace companies also stand to make more from selling the computing systems and services required to make up for the lack of humans.

A working paper presented by dozens of national civil aviation organizations last month asks the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to pave the way for single-pilot operations. ICAO sets global aviation standards, so its leadership will be crucial in legitimizing airline executives’ desire to cut the number of pilots they have on their roster.

“We are potentially removing the last piece of human redundancy from the flight deck,” Janet Northcote, the head of communications at the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told Bloomberg News in an email. 

Increased computing — from navigation aids to engine management — has reduced accidents and allowed for smaller flight crews, but fewer people in the cockpit does not boost safety. This means there’s diminishing marginal returns on emptier cockpits. Better systems may halve the workload for a two-person crew, but that doesn’t mean that a single-pilot cockpit would be just as safe as the older system with two aviators at the controls.

The interim measure, having two pilots for end phases of flight and just one for the middle section (with the other resting) sounds good in theory. If airlines can prove this works, they’ll have a good shot at convincing regulators to allow them to dump the second pilot for the entirety of flights.

Cognitive load is highest during take off and landing, while the physics of flight makes these the two most vulnerable phases. It’s for this reason that a few short-haul flights in a single shift is more exhausting for a lone pilot than a single long trip. At the same time, data shows that the en-route portion accounts for the largest slice of fatal accidents. And even though such incidents have fallen since the 1960s, this “straight-and-level” stage of flight remains the single riskiest phase, an indication that humans are still crucial for the mundane part.

The benefits of cockpit teamwork were on display in the famous Hudson River landing by Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles in 2009 after US Airways flight 1549 suffered double-engine failure soon after take off. A single pilot, taking suggestions from a computer, would have been less likely to make the non-textbook landing on a river which saved the lives of all on board.

A testament against single-person operations came during the “boring” phase of Qantas flight 72 halfway between Singapore and Perth in 2008. Not only did the shared workload of Kevin Sullivan, Peter Lipsett and Ross Hales sitting together save the passengers and crew, but it was the failure of the automated systems that required human intervention in the first place. 

Getting rid of half the pilots isn’t inevitable if consumers take action. Individual jurisdictions can, and have, banned aviation operators deemed a risk. For more than a decade, Indonesian carriers were prohibited from operating in European skies over safety concerns.

And the pushback needn’t be limited to pilot unions, which have a vested interest in nixing these plans. Pressure from citizens through petitions and calls directly to elected representatives will go a long way toward forcing governments to lean toward safety over profits.

If aviation regulators don’t ban single-pilot operations, then consumer welfare agencies can force all sales to be clearly labeled as single-pilot flights at the time they book and pay. Insurers, too, have a large amount of power, and can increase premiums for airlines who decide to pinch pennies on pilot wages.

QF72 and US1549 serve as the famous examples of aviator heroics, but just how many cases exist may never be known. As the delegation of European states note in the working paper to ICAO, “although there is available statistical evidence demonstrating the percentage of accidents attributed to pilot error, there is limited data showing the number of accidents avoided by human intervention.”

While computers have made flying safer over the span of many decades, an increasing number of incidents are occurring either due to system failure or deliberate human actions. Airlines are going too far in leaving flights, and lives, in the hands of a single person and their digital dog. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Boeing CEO Puts Credibility on Line With Writedown: Thomas Black

•  It’s Time for GE to Let Go of GE: Brooke Sutherland & Ben Schott

• Spotters Remind Us How Far Aviation Has Come: Tim Culpan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

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