Airliners Need More Than One Pilot and a Digital Dog

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Twenty years ago, the president of a major international airline, himself an experienced pilot, told me a joke that sounds far more true today. “When we started flying, there were five people in the cockpit: the captain, the first officer, the flight engineer, the navigator, and the radio operator. Then we removed them one by one,” he said, counting the missing spots. “Today there are only two.”

“But in 20 years it will only be once. And a dog too.” He told me, waiting for a clear question. “If the pilot touches anything, to bite!”

If recent moves in the airline industry are any indication, airlines may need to start training their dogs soon.

Single-pilot cockpits could become a reality as early as 2027, as cost-cutting measures and staffing shortages prompt executives to seek smaller flight teams. The first step in this skeleton-crew rollout is something called the Extended Minimal Crew Job. Here, the two pilots are there for the critical takeoff and landing stages of the flight, and there is only one on deck during the main cruising portion of the trip.

It is a prelude to the final goal. It is a single-pilot operation in which a single person flies a $200 million, 200-ton metal tube at 40,000 feet at 550 miles per hour with more than 300 people on board.

Even airlines and aircraft manufacturers don’t have the guts to put their names on this new push, so they’re letting other groups lobby. Operators benefit from reduced labor costs, but aerospace companies can earn more by selling the computing systems and services they need to make up for manpower shortages.

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A working document submitted 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. As ICAO sets global aviation standards, ICAO’s leadership will be critical in legitimizing the demands of airline executives to reduce the number of pilots on their rosters.

“We are potentially removing the last bit of manning redundancy on the flight deck,” Janet Northcote, communications director for the EU Aviation Safety Agency, told Bloomberg News via email. said.

From navigation aids to engine management, improved computing has reduced accidents and allowed for fewer flight crews, but having fewer people in the cockpit doesn’t improve safety. This means that marginal returns decrease with an empty cockpit. A better system could cut a two-man crew’s workload in half, but that doesn’t mean a single-man cockpit is as safe as previous systems with two pilots in the cockpit.

An ad hoc arrangement with two pilots at the end of the flight and only one in the middle (the other resting) looks good in theory. If airlines can prove this works, they could convince regulators to allow them to ditch the second pilot for the entire flight.

Cognitive load is highest during takeoff and landing, and the physics of flight make these two phases the most vulnerable. This is why flying a few short flights in one shift is harder for a lone pilot than one long trip. At the same time, data show that en route segments account for the lion’s share of fatal accidents. And although such incidents have declined since the 1960s, this “straight” phase of flight remains the single most dangerous phase, a sign that humans remain important in their daily routine.

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The benefits of teamwork in the cockpit were shown in the famous Hudson River landing by Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles in 2009 after US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a double-engine failure shortly after takeoff. It is unlikely that one pilot took the computer’s suggestion and the non-textbook landed in the river, saving the lives of everyone on board.

Evidence against one-man operations emerged during the “boring” phase of Qantas Flight 72 between Singapore and Perth in 2008. It was the failure of the automated system that required human intervention in the first place.

Eliminating half of the pilots is not inevitable if consumers take action. Individual jurisdictions may consider airline operators a risk and may ban them. For more than 10 years, Indonesian airlines have been banned from operating in European skies due to safety concerns.

And the backlash need not be limited to the pilot unions, which have a vested interest in rejecting these plans. Citizen pressure through petitions and direct requests to elected representatives will go a long way in forcing the government to lean on safety over profit.

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If aviation regulators don’t ban single-pilot operations, consumer welfare agencies can force all sales to be clearly marked as single-pilot flights at booking and checkout. Insurance companies, too, have great powers and can raise premiums for airlines that decide to spend a little money on pilots’ wages.

The QF72 and US1549 make famous examples of aviator heroes, but you never know how many examples exist. As a delegation of European countries noted in the ICAO working paper, “there is statistical evidence showing the proportion of accidents due to pilot error, but limited data showing the number of accidents that could have been avoided by human intervention.”

Computers have made flying safer for decades, but the number of accidents caused by system failures or deliberate human actions is increasing. Airlines are going too far in leaving their planes alive and living in the hands of one person and their digital dog.

More from Bloomberg comments:

• Reliability through the records of Thomas Black, CEO of Boeing

• It’s time for GE to let go of GE: Brooke Sutherland & Ben Schott

• Scout reminds you how far the air has come: Tim Culpan

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

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. He was previously a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

See more stories like this at bloomberg.com/opinion.

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