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Aviation regulators push for more automation so flights can be run by a single pilot

This is despite a wealth of evidence showing the value of having two in the cockpit

Regulators are pushing the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to examine ways of making single pilot operations the eventual norm in commercial flights.

The area that I think is the most concerning is a pilot sitting on their own in the dark and tired at 3am body clock time for four hours with only text messages from air traffic...

In a working paper [PDF] filed with the aviation standards body, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) requested on behalf of member states that the "necessary enablers" be created "for a safe and globally harmonized introduction of commercial air transport (CAT) operations of large aeroplanes with optimised crew/single-pilot operations while ensuring an equivalent or higher level of safety compared to that achieved in current operations."

There are two obvious drivers for the proposal – cost cutting and crew shortages. Technology has over decades reduced the need for more people in the cockpit and the hope seems to be that further improvements can pare the current two down to one.

Flying pig

'Extraordinary' pigs step in to protect Schiphol airport from marauding geese


"One of the driving factors for the industry to propose taking advantage of the introduction of these new concepts of operations is a foreseen reduction in operating costs," the paper says, though it does note: "Potential additional costs related to higher-level ground support and two-way communications should also be considered. On the aircraft manufacturer side, the development and certification of new cockpit designs and associated systems may require significant investment, although these will likely produce safety benefits and savings in the medium/long term."

The requirements for a full flying license are also incredibly onerous, which creates a bottleneck in the supply for qualified pilots. For most European airlines, you need 1,500 hours flight time before you get a full license. Until then, you're on provisional terms and need a fully qualified pilot operating alongside you.

Nonetheless, single pilot operations (SPO) seems to be the direction of travel for the aviation industry. Chris Kempis, director of flight operations at Cathay Pacific, described it as "the unavoidable challenge" at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Safety Conference last month, but said it is "many, many times more complex" than going from three crew to two.

EASA's Safety Risk Assessment Framework for Extended Minimum Crew Operations (eMCO) and SPO aims to address the following points:

  • Pilot workload: Ensure that the workload of the single-pilot during the cruise phase of the flight is acceptable in normal, abnormal, and non-normal operations.
  • Pilot error: Ensure that the cockpit design is appropriately tolerant of errors, noting that when operating as single-pilot, there is no scope for cross-checking actions by another pilot.
  • Pilot incapacitation: Detect whether the single-pilot during the cruise phase of the flight is no longer fit to fly. Ensure that the level of safety remains acceptable in case of pilot Incapacitation.
  • Fatigue: Ensure that the level of fatigue remains at least as acceptable as for conventional two-pilot operations.
  • Sleep inertia: Ensure resilience of the aircraft and of the operational environment for the time required for the resting pilot to recover sufficiently from the effects of sleep inertia that they can either take command of the aircraft and continue to a safe landing in case of incapacitation of the pilot-flying or be able to assist the pilot-flying with a complex failure scenario.
  • Breaks due to physiological needs: Allow the single-pilot to temporarily leave their station to attend to their physiological needs during an eMCO segment of the flight while ensuring an acceptable level of safety and security.

"The psychological barriers are probably harder than the technological barriers," Boeing Southeast Asia president Alexander Feldman told a Bloomberg business summit in Bangkok last week. "The technology is there for single pilots, it's really about where the regulators and the general public feel comfortable."

And there is reason for concern. Just to look at Boeing, not even two pilots could overcome the 737 MAX airliner's flawed MCAS software, which played a part in the deaths of 346 over two doomed flights in 2018 and 2019. Obviously, there could be no limit to the amount of testing and vetting with regard to any further reliance on automation.

There are also a number of events in recent memory which demonstrate the value of having two pilots in the cockpit. Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in 2015, killing all 150 on board. Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had been treated for suicidal tendencies and was declared unfit for work by his doctor. Lubitz kept this information from his employer and reported for duty. Once the aircraft, an Airbus A320-211, reached cruising altitude, Lubitz waited for the captain to leave the cockpit, locked the door, and began a controlled descent into the side of a mountain.

Following the incident, EASA itself recommended that there be two authorized personnel in the cockpit at all times. The rule has since fallen out of favor with regulators.

There is also the "Miracle on the Hudson" of 2009, where the captain and first officer in tandem safely landed a US Airways Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese, causing both engines to fail. All on board survived.

"Proposed automated solutions do not provide the same safety and security margin as having a second rested, qualified, well-trained pilot physically present on the flight deck," says another ICAO paper [PDF] on eMCO dated August 2022.

A commercial pilot who spoke to The Register on the condition of anonymity said: "I would say it's more of an ambition of the airlines and aircraft manufacturers. I have certainly had conversations about it with our managers (who deal with Airbus) in the past.

"The area that I think is the most concerning is a pilot sitting on their own in the dark and tired at 3am body clock time for four hours with only text messages from air traffic.

"It's mentally tough going and more likely to result in the build up of anxiety and stress when something goes wrong. Pilots are trained to be open and questioning of plans of action e.g. asking the other pilot what they think is the best direction to turn to avoid the thunderstorms.

"Also the vast majority of problems in cruise on long-haul flights come from the cabin. I assume the single pilot would have to give total control to the ground monitoring team while they deal with the cabin issue. Not sure the data link systems are up to that.

"Having two pilots at the front seems like a small price to pay to get to where you want to go in one piece." ®

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