Airliners need more than a 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 rings even truer today. “When I started flying, we had five people in the cockpit: captain, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator and radio operator. Then they got rid of them one by one,” he said, counting the lost seats. “Today we only have two.”

“But in 20 years, it will only be one. Not a dog anymore,” he told me, waiting for the obvious question: what is the dog for? “To bite the pilot if he hits anything!”

If recent movements in the aviation industry are any indication, airlines will soon have to begin dog training.

Single-pilot cockpits could be a reality as early as 2027, as cost-cutting measures and staffing shortages prompt executives to seek ever-smaller flight teams. The first phase of this skeleton crew deployment would be what is called extended minimum crew operations, where two pilots would be there for the critical take-off and landing phases of the flight, with only one on the deck during the main part of the journey.

It’s a prelude to the end goal: single-pilot operations involving a single person piloting a $200 million, 200-ton metal tube at 550 miles per hour at 40,000 feet with over 300 people on board. .

Airlines, and even aircraft manufacturers, don’t have the guts to join in this new push, so they let other groups do the lobbying for them. Operators benefit from reduced personnel costs, but aerospace companies can also earn more by selling the computer systems and services needed to compensate for the lack of humans.

A discussion paper submitted by dozens of national civil aviation organizations last month calls on the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to pave the way for single-pilot operations. ICAO sets global aviation standards, so its leadership will be crucial in legitimizing airline executives’ desire to reduce the number of pilots they have on their roster.

“We are potentially removing the last piece of human redundancy from the cockpit,” Janet Northcote, communications manager at the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told Bloomberg News in an email.

Increased computing – from navigational aids to engine management – has reduced accidents and allowed for smaller flight crews, but fewer people in the cockpit does not improve safety. This means that there are diminishing marginal returns on emptier cockpits. Better systems can cut the workload of a two-person crew in half, but that doesn’t mean a single-pilot cockpit would be as safe as the old system with two airmen at the controls.

The stopgap measure, having two pilots for the end-of-flight phases and only one for the midsection (with the other at rest) sounds good in theory. If the airlines can prove it works, they will have a good chance of convincing regulators to allow them to jettison the second pilot for the entire flights.

Cognitive load is highest during take-off and landing, while the physics of flight make these the two most vulnerable phases. It is for this reason that a few short-haul flights in a single shift are more exhausting for a solo pilot than a single long trip. At the same time, the data shows that the en-route part accounts for the largest slice of fatal accidents. And even though such incidents have decreased since the 1960s, this “straight and level” stage of flight remains the riskiest phase, an indication that humans are still crucial for the mundane part.

The benefits of teamwork in the cockpit were demonstrated during the famous Hudson River landing by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles in 2009 after US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a dual engine failure. shortly after takeoff. A single pilot, taking suggestions from a computer, would have been less likely to make the non-manual landing on a river that saved the lives of all on board.

Testimony against single-person operations came during the ‘boring’ phase of Qantas Flight 72 halfway between Singapore and Perth in 2008. Not only the shared workload of Kevin Sullivan, Peter Lipsett and Ross Hales seated together 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 half the drivers is not inevitable if consumers take action. Individual jurisdictions can, and have, banned air operators deemed a risk. For more than a decade, Indonesian carriers have been banned from operating in European skies for safety reasons.

And pushback shouldn’t be limited to the pilots’ unions, which have a vested interest in canceling these plans. Citizen pressure through petitions and appeals directly to elected officials will go a long way in forcing governments to prioritize security over profit.

If aviation regulators do not prohibit single-pilot operations, consumer protection agencies may require all sales to be clearly labeled as single-pilot flights at the time of booking and payment. Insurers also have a lot of power and can raise premiums for airlines that decide to eat away at pilots’ salaries.

QF72 and US1549 serve as famous examples of airman heroism, but the number of existing cases may never be known. As noted by the Delegation of European States in the working document to ICAO, “although there is statistical evidence available demonstrating the percentage of accidents attributed to pilot error, there is limited data showing the number accidents avoided by human intervention”.

While computers have made flight safer for decades, an increasing number of incidents are occurring either due to system failure or deliberate human action. Airlines are going too far by leaving flights and lives in the hands of one person and their digital dog.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Boeing CEO puts credibility in line with depreciation: Thomas Black

• It’s time for GE to ditch GE: Brooke Sutherland and Ben Schott

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

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion