Airliners Need More Than One Pilot and a Digital Dog

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

“But in 20 years it will be just one. Plus a dog,” he told me, anticipating the obvious question: what is the dog for? “To bite the pilot if he touches anything!”

If recent events in the aviation industry are any indication, airlines will soon have to start training their dogs.

Single-pilot cockpits could become a reality as early as 2027, as cost-cutting measures and staff shortages push managers to seek ever smaller flight crews. The first phase of this crew-frame deployment would be so-called extended minimum crew, where two pilots would be on board during the critical takeoff and landing phases of flight, with only one on board during the main leg of the journey.

It’s a precursor to the goal: single-pilot operations involving just one person flying a $200 million, 200-ton metal tube at 550 mph at 40,000 feet with more than 300 people on board.

Airlines and even aircraft manufacturers don’t have the guts to put their names to this new stage, so they let other groups lobby for them. Operators benefit from lower personnel costs, but aerospace companies can also earn more by selling the computing systems and services needed to make up for the lack of people.

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A working paper submitted last month by dozens of civil aviation organizations asked the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to pave the way for single-pilot flights. ICAO sets global aviation standards, so its leadership will be crucial in legitimizing airline managers’ desire to reduce the number of pilots on their rosters.

“We’re potentially eliminating the last people out of the cockpit,” Janet Norcott, head of communications at the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency, said in an email to Bloomberg News.

Increased computing, from navigation aids to engine control, has reduced accidents and allowed for smaller flight crews, but fewer people in the cockpit does not improve safety. This means that the marginal return of the emptiest cabins decreases. Better systems can cut the workload for a two-man crew in half, but that doesn’t mean a single-pilot cockpit is as safe as the older system with two aviators at the controls.

An interim arrangement of two pilots for the final phases of the flight and only one for the middle part (while the other rests) sounds good in theory. If airlines can prove it works, they’ll have a good shot at convincing regulators to allow co-pilots to be ejected on all flights.

Cognitive load is greatest during takeoff and landing, while the physics of flight make these two phases the most vulnerable. For this reason, a few short flights in one shift are more tiring for a single pilot than one long trip. At the same time, the data shows that the route part accounts for the largest share of fatal accidents. And while the number of such incidents has decreased since the 1960s, this “straight and level” leg of flight remains the single riskiest leg, showing that humans are still very important to the routine part.

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The benefits of cockpit teamwork were seen in the famous Hudson River flight by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skille in 2009 after US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a twin engine failure shortly after takeoff. An individual pilot taking advice from a computer would be less likely than a non-textbook person to land in a river that saved the lives of everyone on board.

The assertion against single-person flights originated during the “boring” phase of Qantas Flight 72 midway between Singapore and Perth in 2008. The combined workload of Kevin Sullivan, Peter Lipset and Ross Hales not only saved the passengers and crew, but it was the failure of the automated systems that required human intervention in the first place.

Getting rid of the pilots is not inevitable if consumers act. Certain jurisdictions can and have banned aviation operators deemed a risk. For more than a decade, Indonesian carriers were banned from operating in European skies due to security concerns.

And the refusal doesn’t have to be limited to pilot unions, which have an interest in scuttling those plans. Pressure from citizens through petitions and appeals to directly elected representatives will significantly force governments to rely on security over profit.

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If aviation regulators don’t ban single-pilot flights, then consumer welfare agencies can force all sales to be clearly labeled as single-pilot flights at the time they book and pay. Insurers also have a lot of power and can raise premiums for airlines that decide to cut cents from pilot pay.

QF72 and US1549 serve as famous examples of aviator exploits, but how many examples exist may never be known. As the delegation of European countries notes in an ICAO working document, “while there is statistical evidence showing the percentage of accidents attributable to pilot error, there is limited data showing the number of accidents that could have been avoided by human intervention.”

Although computers have made flying safer over many decades, more and more incidents are occurring either due to system failure or deliberate human action. Airlines are going too far, leaving flights and lives in the hands of one person and their digital dog.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Boeing CEO compares reliability to write-offs: Thomas Black

• It’s Time for GE to Fire GE: Brooke Sutherland and Ben Schott

• Observers remind us how far aviation has come: Tim Culpan

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

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

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