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Who Will be the Winner of the Flight Between Pilots and Technology?

Issue 16 - 2023
Who Will be the Winner of the  Flight Between Pilots and Technology?

Professional organizations and pilot unions have declared that single-pilot operations, which have been discussed frequently recently, pose a threat to flight safety, and joined forces against the implementation of this practice.

The world's largest pilot organizations have united to manifest that profitability should not take priority over flight safety. They called on airlines and aircraft makers to rethink their plans for single-pilot ops. The coalition intends to take joint action against global regulators, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA), whose founding mission is "to promote the highest level of aviation safety worldwide and to be the global advocate of the piloting profession," represents over 150,000 pilots in nearly 100 countries. The coalition formed by the representatives from the European Cockpit Association (ECA), with 40,000 members, and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world's largest pilots' association across the Atlantic with more than 67,000 members from 39 airlines across the US and Canada, has similar objectives and argue that single-pilot operations will lead to a significant increase in workload of the pilots.

The joint statement, signed by ALPA President Jason Ambrosi, IFALPA President Jack Netskar and ECA President Otjan de Bruijn, claims that technology, no matter how sophisticated, is not a replacement for pilots on the flight deck. It argues that the control of an aircraft by two pilots remains the most important safety features of an aircraft. It acknowledges that pilots can troubleshoot system failures and provide backup, bridge technological gaps, and adapt to unanticipated situations and emergencies in real time.

The statement emphasized the significance of having a team of at least two qualified, experienced, trained, and rested pilots in the cockpit. It also emphasized that the aircraft, its systems, the regulations, and standards applicable to flight, and the procedures followed by pilots are all deliberately designed for a team working together on the flight deck.

The objection to single-pilot operations is supported by various international pilot communities, including those under the umbrella of airline alliances such as the Star Alliance Pilots Association, Oneworld Cockpit Crew Coalition, and SkyTeam Pilots Association. TALPA, the Turkish Airlines’ Pilots Association, also announced on social media that they support two pilots at all times on the flight deck for flight safety.

More than 40 countries, including the UK and Germany, have in recent months formally asked ICAO to help make single-pilot operations a safe reality. ICAO, a specialized agency of the UN focused primarily on promoting safe and effective air transport, has been researching new operational concepts such as full automation and extended minimum-crew operations for many years. However, it recognizes right away that public and pilot support will be crucial to change the two-pilot norm in commercial aviation. The primary requirement set forth by the EU for ICAO approval of single-pilot operations is that all flight safety controls be at least as efficient as those conducted by two persons.

The first step in transition to single-pilot operations will be to allow solo piloting when aircraft are cruising, except for takeoff and landing. With this step, one of the pilots in the cockpit will control the aircraft while the other will rest. By alternating breaks in this manner, a two-person crew could fly longer routes without the help — and expense — of an extra pilot.

The flight could be fully automated with minimal oversight from a pilot in the cockpit, according to experts working on this matter. The system could detect if the pilot for whatever reason became incapacitated and then land the aircraft by itself at a predetermined airport. 

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has also started collaborating with aircraft manufacturers to examine the necessary regulations for such concept. EASA is making studies on whether one pilot could be removed for part of the flight or completely without compromising safety. Necessary work is being carried out on extended minimum-crew operations, which could be a step for single-pilot operations. EASA has previously stated that single-pilot flights could begin as early as 2030.

European manufacturer Airbus has tested autonomous flight concepts many times with its A350-1000 test aircraft, including emergencies, landings, and take-offs. However, Airbus continues to support two-pilot operations for the time being.

Aircraft manufacturers and airlines see single-pilot operations as a step towards pilotless flights. Boeing and Airbus' ultimate goal is to develop autonomous systems that can operate commercial aircraft safely and efficiently without human intervention, potentially lowering operational costs, and satisfying the growing demand for air travel.

These developments have not been well received by the pilot community. Tony Lucas, President of the Australian and International Pilots Association, raised his concern that a single pilot may not be able to cope with any emergency case.

The Air France A330 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 while en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris is frequently given as an example against single-pilot operations. The argument that there should always be two pilots in the cockpit is based on the fact that the captain pilot, who was resting in the cabin, came to the cockpit 90 seconds later and that the aircraft went into an unrecoverable aerodynamic stall.

Opponents focus on the benefits of single-pilot operations. In addition to cost savings in recruitment, training, and pilot salaries, what makes the idea appealing is the possibility to deploy pilots more freely, allowing airlines to overcome recent staff shortages.

The continuous development of technology makes remote support for airplanes more likely in the future. Actually, this is where the aircraft business has been heading for decades. In the 1950s, commercial airplane cockpits were much more crowded than today. Each aircraft had a cockpit crew of five, including the captain pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator. However, except for the two pilots, the other three seats in the cockpit were be replaced by computers. This evolution in the cockpit over time is whetting the appetite of pilotless cockpit advocates.

Some industry professionals think that a transition to single-pilot operations is unlikely to occur anytime soon. Willie Walsh, IATA's Director General, is one of them. "I don’t expect to see a move to single-pilot operation, if ever, in the next 15, 20, maybe 25 years," Walsh said last December.

Thanks to robust safety management systems, air travel has become the safest mode of transportation today. To introduce single-pilot operations, the technological and regulatory basis for changes in procedures needs to be established. It is not yet clear what the scenario would look like in case of a problem with a pilot operating alone in the cockpit. There are many challenges that must be resolved before this concept can be implemented, from the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms to the improvement of sensor technologies, from infrastructure issues in communication and data sharing to cyber security concerns.

The most significant challenge, however, is convincing people against autonomous aircraft. Experts believe that the psychological barriers to its feasibility outweigh the technological ones. We already have the necessary technology for single-pilot operations. Its implementation depends on both the authorities and passengers feeling comfortable. For pilotless commercial operations to be widely adopted, getting people to trust the concept is perhaps the biggest challenge. Safety, security, and liability concerns are also being seriously addressed to increase public confidence in this novel (and scary) technology.

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