We’ve seen waves of proposals and research in the last few years regarding single pilot operations in the commercial airline environment. Companies are constantly looking for ways to cut costs, but at what point will safety have to make way for efficiency? Today we’ll be looking at the arguments and counter-arguments for moving to a commercial aviation sector where single pilot commercial flights are the norm. Why have multi pilot operations been the norm for commercial air traffic for the last few decades, and what can we learn from the difference it has made?
Global aviation has an impressive safety record, because it’s continuously learning from mistakes made in the past, and coming up with ways to tackle safety issues. The single pilot debate has been quite controversial for multiple reasons that we’ll cover in this article. For this analysis today, we’ll try to leave personal biases out of this and actually look at the research, the data it presents, and the conclusions that come with it.
Why do Larger Aircraft Require Two Pilots?
Global aviation is governed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). ICAO brings a lot of regulation that individual countries have to follow, but also grants autonomy to local regulators to implement deviations / more strict rules in general. Most commercial air traffic is required by law to be operated by 2 pilots (especially above certain weight classes).
Why? Well, aviation has proven to become more and more complex as time goes on. But when we keep coming up with clever ways to increase safety and efficiency, it usually adds to the amount of required knowledge and decision making for the pilots.
Research in Human Factors teaches us more and more how error-prone we can be as humans, and that none of us are perfect aviators. We are all susceptible to biases, illusions, tunnel vision, startle effects, and other unescapable phenomena that are unfortunately part of being human. Our priority in aviation should be how we can tackle these issues in the safest way possible.
From simple tasks like loading an FMS or raising the gear, to complex decision making; having an extra pair of eyes in the cockpit that you can bounce ideas off has been proven to be incredibly valuable. It has also led to the industry adoption of Multi Pilot operations, even in areas that aren’t the airlines such as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS), Search and Rescue (SAR), and corporate / VIP aviation.
In 2019, ICAO and the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) started a discussion on the topic of ‘should reduced crew operations or single pilot operations be implemented in the airlines’.
It sparked a huge debate and additional research within the industry. If you’re wondering what the main counter arguments were that were brought forward by IFALPA, this is a summary of the general findings:
- Having someone next to us as Pilot Monitoring (PM) who crosschecks what we’re up to as Pilot Flying (PF), has proven to have a huge impact on overall flight safety. Errors can get caught by either pilot, checking each other’s cognitive ability, dealing with fatigue, etc.
- Two pilots are required to mitigate safety and operational risk in a fast paced, dynamic environment. Changes in weather, flight clearances, dealing with emergencies and diversion decision making all improve when there’s a second perspective on the table that needs to be taken into account.
- Numerous studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have indicated that automation and computers helping a pilot by himself do not offer the same safety benefits as an actual human.
- If automation was ever to replace a second pilot, it would have to be able to replicate the human ability to assess situations, sense, react, adapt, and come up with solutions to vague, non black and white problems
- Improved air-to-ground coms and automation that would be necessary for single pilot operations would introduce new aircraft vulnerabilities, such as external variables or third parties tampering with directs communication to aircraft systems that could directly alter flight paths.
- The two pilot system currently provides redundancy if the other pilot feels unwell, is no longer fit to fly, or even becomes incapacitated. Having a single pilot leaves the entire plane susceptible to catastrophic outcomes in case of incapacitation, unless automation or remote piloting capabilities improves to the point where it can reliably deal with this. Let’s say pilot incapacitation only happens globally on 0.001% of all flights, that’s still 22 flights where incapacitation could be catastrophic based on 22 million flights in 2021!
Sounds pretty definitive right? Well, not so much if you ask operators. But before we move onto the other side of the debate, let’s have a look at how we got here in the first place!
Can an autopilot replace a pilot?
The biggest factor influencing all of this is the increased amount of automation throughout the last few decades. Modern cockpits have completely transformed from old gauges and dials, to advanced systems with integrated avionics. We are slowly changing the craft of being a pilot from a manual operator, to more of a system manager. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of this in a nutshell?
Well, the push in automation has (of course) come with a whole collection of extra threats. Threats like automation bias, automation complacency, more complicated systems, and therefore an even more crucial need to have an adequate amount of system knowledge and mode awareness in flight. Automation also has the potential to cause hazards if the systems are poorly understood or mishandled by pilots.
ICAO lists the following as the main automation threats that are mitigated by having a PF and a PM on the flight deck:
- A reduction in manual flying and therefore manual flying skills, which is made worse by operators encouraging crews to use automation more and more because of the operational benefits it grants the company.
- A higher risk of distraction in cases where things are not going as expected. Crews tend to require more time to properly diagnose a fault when there are more systems that are all working together, and get distracted from actually flying the aircraft
- Short notice ATC instructions could require complete reprogramming flight management computers, which is a process prone to errors with often a reduction in quality of cross checking due to time constraints
- When autopilot malfunctions occur, the difficulty in manual flying increases a lot for aircraft that rely heavily on onboard computers for overall stabilisation
- When automation fails to disconnect or involve the pilots (see the 737 MAX debacle for instance), it might be impossible to recover the aircraft safely in time, especially when flight crew hasn’t received appropriate training
- Automation dependency, complacency, and bias become more and more common as the level of automation increases
While it’s true that all these threats were introduced by automation, there is no denying that at the same time, automation has provided a massive aid to efficiency and overall flight management.
Here are the main benefits of this increased amount of automation, which are being used to push the single pilot perspective, to convince the authorities:
- A reduction in the amount of required manual flying
- Flight path efficiency
- Ability to fly in reduced weather minima
- Automation can monitor more effectively than humans, and can relieve pilots from non-rewarding and repetitive tasks
- A good implementation of automated systems should reduce overall workload during flight, and free up capacity of the flight crew to deal with more important issues such as in flight decision making
- As autopilot functionality increases, we could use remote piloting capabilities to aid the pilot in the cockpit in times of need, but we’ll need to develop security measures to prevent interference from potentially malicious third parties
All of this makes the issue more complicated when it comes to whether or not automation helps or hinders the push to single pilot operations.
On one hand, the argument is made that due to the reduced workload, we need less pilots in the cockpit.
On the other hand, the increased complexity of avionics and aircraft require even more crosschecking, and complex system need managing, which currently justifies the need for a second pilot.
The Push Towards Single Pilot Commercial Flights
ICAO and local regulators across the globe are starting to receive more and more pressure from commercial operators to alleviate the requirements for 2 pilots, as costs could be saved this way. EASA is currently in the process of assessing various frameworks to be able to facilitate this development.
This change is also seen by airlines (rightly or wrongly) as a way to mitigate the pilot shortage everyone keeps going on about.
The debate mentioned above in 2019 wasn’t the first or last to talk about the potential single pilot transition.
The motion was pushed to ICAO with a lot of arguments for the transition. ICAO has said in the past that in order to get an approval for single pilot commercial flights, there will need to be proof that it can be at least “as safe as with two people on the controls”.
If you’re thinking “How could it possibly be as safe?” You’re thinking the same as many pilots and aviation professionals who are worried that this change will inevitably result in a lowering of safety standards.
Janet Northcote, EASA’s head of communication phrased it as:
“We are potentially removing the last piece of human redundancy from the flight deck”.
This is a point that will probably speak to the general public the most as well. Ask yourself if you would be comfortable stepping in a passenger plane with only 1 pilot in the front.
It will be interesting to see what public opinion will look like on this. Anecdotally, most of the pilots I’ve asked about this all say they wouldn’t. But that’s pilots, what are the people who aren’t familiar with aviation going to say?
Market research firm IPSOS conducted a large scale investigation into public opinion on what they think is the safest way to handle in flight emergencies, have a look at the results:
As you can see, public opinion still heavily leans towards two pilots working together to achieve a safe outcome during an emergency.
In addition to this, they were asked: “Would you fly on a pilotless plane if the airfare was 10, 20, 30% cheaper?” This is the data they collected:
This indicates that the majority of the general public doesn’t really care too much about price, as long as they feel safe with two pilots on the flight deck.
Only a quarter said they would consider it if the price was reduced. It will be interesting to see how this changes as time goes on and technology develops more.
Various aircraft manufacturers seem to be onboard though, as they are incentivised by trying to play into an ‘emerging market’.
If there are more and more airlines with an interest in single pilot planes, the major manufacturers (Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, etc) will be happy to oblige if it means they’ll be the next popular choice. But public opinion will probably be more important than everyone realises.
In fact, Boeing Southeast Asia President Alexander Feldman told Bloomberg in Bangkok:
“The technology is there for single pilots, it’s really about where the regulators and the general public feel comfortable.”
Of course, competitors like Airbus are already experimenting with single pilot ops as well in their A350 within the cargo industry! This also indicates that everyone is very aware that public opinion might make this transition harder than just getting approval from regulators.
What are the Threats of Single Pilot Flights?
NASA did a lot of research on single pilot versus multi pilot operations. Not just to help the aviation industry, but also to see what the philosophy should be going forward in human spaceflight, where a lot of principles we find in aviation have similar effects.
The main focus here was workload management. The findings showed pilot workload was significantly higher (as expected) during single pilot ops (on the right) compared to multi pilot (on the left).
In addition to this, pilots themselves also are heavily against the move towards single pilot, according to the same study. Here are the results of the question “How safe would it be to conduct commercial flights under single pilot?”
The majority said ‘completely unacceptable’. This was to be expected, as multi pilot operations are currently the norm for the majority of pilots globally.
In adddition to this, during a different study from NASA, pilots were asked how they felt they performed by themselves compared to as part of a team, this is what the results looked like:
The main take-away here is overall situation awareness, communication and preparing for approaches (which is the riskiest phase of flight for fixed wing) were all heavily impeded if flight crew were separated / by themselves compared to sitting in the same room, working together.
When it comes to actually operating an aircraft under single pilot in situations where multi pilot is currently the norm, checklist usage was a lot less consistent and accurate than under multi pilot.
As mentioned before, the other threat will be pilot incapacitations. Automation will have to get to the point where, in case of an incapacitation, it can land the aircraft safely without the need for human interaction. This will be challenging to develop.
A 2014 NASA paper quoted the FAA, which said that between 1993 and 1998, there were 39 recorded medical incapacitations.. This risk will somehow have to get mitigated before serious considerations can be taken forwards.
In addition to this, managing fatigue as a crew is already challenging enough as it is, especially at night on long haul flights. How will this be managed under the single pilot paradigm?
Then, there is the issue that no one is even talking about. The airline industry currently relies on expertise and experience being passed on from captain to first officer. If you remove the need for a second pilot, how will new pilots be brought into the industry?
Are we going back to the days where all pilots will come from the military, with completely different background than the industry they’re about to set foot in? Progression within an airline and talent acquisition will be a massive hurdle to overcome if everything is operated under single pilot.
So there we have it, the attempt to start the transition to single pilot operations for commercial flights still has a lot of people to convince, hoops to jump through, and facts to prove.
In summary, the findings so far by both regulators and NASA indicate the following:
- The transition to single pilot operations is heavily influenced by public opinion, and will dictate which and when airlines are adopting this new way of operating
- New systems and solutions must be developed in order for single pilot risks and threats to be mitigated properly
- Pilot performance is significantly reduced when operating in a complex environment without the help of second pilot, this will have to be managed appropriately
- If remote piloting is part of the solution, there need to be layers of security in place to prevent interference from third parties trying to influence a plane’s flight path
- Pilot incapacitation is a massive threat to single pilot operations, which can only be solved by having automation that can deal with it, or having remote pilots taking over the flight controls
None of these are easy to achieve, and only time will tell what will happen in the next 5 to 10 years. What are your thoughts and perspectives on this issue? Let me know via LinkedIn or comment below!
Captain Pankaj Sharma · February 20, 2023 at 8:02 AM
Hi Jop. I am a helicopter pilot from India. I read your article regularly and find them very useful. The above article is for fixed wing machines. Is there any data available for helicopters. Our company operates four helicopters and we all fly single pilot. Our flying is quite reasonable with 35 odd hours per month. During monsoons and for IFR flying we are always two pilot configuration. Please update if any helicopter data is available. Thanks n Regards
Jop Dingemans · February 20, 2023 at 8:12 AM
That’s a good point, most data currently available has featured fixed wing aircraft. However, there are a lot of transferable principles and findings that we can apply to the helicopter industry as well. Of course, it depends on helicopter type, and complexity etc. All of the data presented here is mainly focussed on CRM, so it doesn’t matter if you’re an astronaut, helicopter pilot, or fixed wing pilot – it will be applicably in many ways.
If I find more helicopter specific data in the future, I’ll add it to the article and will let you know!