Lucas, a check and training captain, also worries about lost opportunities to mentor young pilots if the flight crew increasingly work on their own.
Planned changes bring many challenges. It is not yet clear what would happen if a lone pilot crashed or began to fly erratically. Automation, technology and remote assistance from the ground would somehow have to replace the experience, safety and immediacy of a second pilot.
Aviation has been moving towards this point for decades. In the 1950s, commercial airliner cabins were more crowded, typically with a captain, first officer or co-pilot, a flight engineer, a navigator, and a radio operator. Advances in technology gradually made the last three positions redundant.
“We are potentially removing the last piece of human redundancy from the flight deck,” Janet Northcote, EASA’s head of communications, wrote in an email.
A condition for single-pilot operations is that it be at least as safe as two people at the controls, according to an EU request to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN aviation standards body.
“The psychological barriers are probably tougher than the technological barriers,” Boeing’s president of Southeast Asia, Alexander Feldman, said at a Bloomberg business summit in Bangkok last week. “The technology is there for individual pilots, it’s really about making regulators and the general public feel comfortable.”
A first step would be to allow solo piloting when aircraft are cruising, typically a less busy period than takeoff and landing. That would allow the other pilot to rest in the cockpit, instead of staying in the cockpit to help fly the plane.
By staggering breaks in this way, a two-person crew could fly longer routes without the help and expense of an additional pilot.
Ultimately, flying could be fully automated with minimal supervision from a pilot in the cockpit. The system could detect if the pilot became incapacitated for any reason and then land the plane itself at a pre-selected airport, according to EASA. Such flights are not likely until well after 2030, he said.
The value of having two pilots in the lead was demonstrated on January 15, 2009, when a US Airways plane struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff, losing power to both engines. The Captain, Chesley Sullenberger, and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles managed to land the Airbus A320 together in the Hudson River. No one died. The incident became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.
To date, nothing has proven to be safer than “a physically well-trained, qualified, and rested second pilot present on the flight deck,” the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations told ICAO in a document for its assembly. last month.
“Commercial airline passengers absolutely expect and deserve two pilots in the cockpit,” said Joe Leader, chief executive of Apex, a New York-based aviation association that focuses on passenger experiences.
Airbus said in an email that it is evaluating how its planes could fly with smaller crews. For now, the planemaker is working with airlines and regulators to see if two pilots can safely replace three-person crews on long-haul flights.
The carriers are investigating single-pilot flights, including China Eastern Airlines, which suffered a fatal crash in March. A Shanghai-based airline pilot co-authored research last month that evaluated how takeoff and landing tasks could be automated or completed with the help of a ground station.
EASA said it is aware of the concerns about solo flights and that addressing them is part of the process.
“These concepts will not be implemented until the aviation community is comfortable that operations will be at least as safe as they are today,” Northcote said.
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