(CNN) — If you boarded a passenger plane in 1950 and peeked into the cockpit, you would have seen five people there (almost certainly men): two pilots, a radio operator, a navigator, and a flight engineer.
Over the years, technical advances in radio communications, navigation systems and onboard surveillance equipment have gradually removed the need for the latter three, making it possible to safely fly a passenger aircraft with only two pilots. That has been the standard in commercial aviation for about 30 years.
Things could soon be streamlined, however, and one of the two remaining pilots—technically the first officer—could leave soon, leaving only the captain behind. Many smaller and military aircraft are already manned by a single pilot, but for commercial aviation this would mean venturing into a brave new world.
A challenging transition
“Moving from a two-pilot cockpit to a single-pilot cockpit will be significantly more challenging than transitioning from a five-person cockpit to a two-person cockpit,” says a 2014 NASA study into single-pilot operations that has been researching this topic for over ten years. According to the same study, a properly implemented switch “could save operating costs while maintaining a level of safety no less than conventional commercial two-pilot operations.”
But how do you get off one pilot safely? One way is to greatly increase the automation in the cockpit, by dedicating more tasks to computers. Another is to solve the same tasks from the cockpit to the ground, with the remaining pilot working as a member of a “distributed crew”.
The latter approach seems more feasible, at least in the short term, as much of what it takes to implement it already exists. “Technologically, you could say that in many cases we are already there,” said Patrick Smith, an airline pilot who flies Boeing 767 aircraft and the author of the popular book and blog “Ask the Pilot.”
“But by doing that,” he continues, “you eliminate certain layoffs and I struggle with that because I fly for a living and even with two pilots in the cockpit it can get extremely busy — to the point of task saturation.” for both.”
The four-man crew of the Southern Cross monoplane study a map of their route at Croydon Airport in June 1930. From left to right: Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith, copilot Evert Van Dyke, radio operator John Stannage, and navigator J. Patrick Saul .
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Increased work pressure
In one scenario proposed by NASA, the remaining pilot in the cockpit would be supported by a “super-dispatcher” on the ground, a trained pilot who could oversee a number of flights at once and even operate the aircraft completely remotely if necessary. could control, for example if the cockpit pilot becomes incapacitated for work.
Another option is the “harbour pilot”, also a trained pilot but specialized in a specific airport, who can provide assistance with multiple aircraft arriving and departing from that airport.
NASA conducted tests for these setups by placing pilots from real crews in separate rooms before showing them difficult flight conditions on a Boeing 737 simulator.
All pilots were able to land their aircraft safely, but the study showed “significant increase in workload” compared to regular two-crew operations, resulting in “subjective assessments of safety and performance that were significantly deteriorated”. Missing the other pilot’s visual cues sometimes led to confusion or uncertainty about which tasks had been completed or not.
Having just one pilot on board would save airlines money, but only if the new ground operators and advanced automation aren’t going to cost more, NASA says. Additional small savings could come from smaller or lighter cockpits in future aircraft.
There is also another way of doing operations with one pilot, but only on long-haul flights, which currently requires a third pilot to take over when one of the other two rests.
In this scenario, the third pilot would be removed and the two remaining pilots would operate normally during takeoff and landing, but take alternating breaks during the cruise portion of the flight.
“In that case, you go from two pilots to one pilot in certain flight regimes,” Smith says. “But in the other flight regimes and if necessary, there would always be at least two more pilots. I’m open to that conversation — I’m much more amenable to that conversation than the idea of removing a pilot completely.”
A Cathay Pacific A350-1000 aircraft.
Thanks to Cathay Pacific
Airbus and Cathay Pacific are already testing this on the A350: “We are investigating operational patterns for flight crews on long-haul flights,” an Airbus spokesperson confirmed to CNN. “These investigations are ongoing and are based on a minimum of two operational crew members per flight. They are being conducted in conjunction with regulatory authorities and airline partners.” The goal is to certify the A350 for this type of operation in the coming years.
Cathay Pacific also confirmed its involvement as “one of a number of airlines working with Airbus,” a spokesperson told CNN, and that “this is a long-term commitment to a project that is still in its conceptual phase.” They added that, even if the concept is approved and introduced in the future, “all aircraft in [Cathay Pacific’s] existing fleet is certified to operate with a minimum of two pilots on board and that there are no plans to reduce that number.”
Airlines are speeding up their single-pilot operations, not only because it could save them money, but also because of an impending pilot shortage on the horizon.
Boeing predicts a need for 600,000 new pilots over the next two decades, but some estimates say there will be a global shortage of at least 34,000 pilots by 2025. Reducing the number of pilots on some crews or aircraft could lessen its impact.
However, the group that will offer the most resistance will likely be pilots themselves.
“That’s because we’re advocating on our behalf to save our jobs, but also because we have a pretty good understanding of how commercial aircraft work and the huge challenges that come with them,” Smith said.
The Airline Pilots Association, International (ALPA), the largest airline pilot union in the world, released a paper in 2019 about the dangers of single-pilot flights. It called the idea “premature” and based on “many expensive and unproven technologies”, stating that “the most vital safety feature in transport category aircraft now and for the foreseeable future [is] two experienced, trained and rested professional pilots in the cockpit.”
The paper also says that no autonomous system can compensate an incapacitated pilot, and there are many examples of incidents that required two pilots in the cockpit to recover from equipment failures that would otherwise likely have resulted in disaster.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger talks to CNN’s John Berman about the United Boeing 777 flight that suffered an engine failure and the training pilots receive to deal with those situations.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle on the path to a single pilot is selling the idea to passengers. In 2019, Don Harris, a professor of human factors at Coventry University in the UK, conducted a focus group and survey on the prospect of flying on a plane with just one pilot.
About 50% of participants said they would be willing to take that flight, and the general consensus was that removing a pilot is “dangerous until proven safe.” The three factors that weighed most in the participants’ decision-making process were pilot health, confidence in the technology, and a combination of ticket price and airline reputation, indicating that a significantly reduced fare would help sell the idea. In the study, Harris concludes that the single-crew plane is probably still 20 years away, but that legislative developments could make that happen sooner, albeit only for cargo planes.
Smith agrees: “Maybe there’s room for something like that further down the airline chain, small planes or cargo operations, air taxi operations, charters. But to implement that at the major airline level is a long way off.”
According to Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, the move will take many years to come, although it is inevitable: “I don’t think passenger perception is very important, but establishing guaranteed and secure data connections to ground stations is a must, and of course plenty of time for regulators and insurance people to feel comfortable with this as well.”
However, removing a pilot from the cockpit will help develop the technology needed for the next and final step: removing human pilots completely and allowing aircraft to fly remotely or autonomously. That sounds like an even more complicated conversation, though: “Two pilots on one pilot is a big step,” Smith says, “but one pilot on no pilots is a huge step.”
Top image: A flight simulator in a reproduction of a Boeing 737 cockpit at the 2011 Paris Air Show. (JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)