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Can planes fly with one pilot only?

Could planes fly with just one pilot or no pilot at the controls at all? They probably could. A group of aircraft manufacturers and airlines has picked up on the idea of reducing the number of pilots in the cockpit, from 2 to 1, even if that would require a complete overhaul of the available technology, aviation infrastructure, operational procedures, and regulations currently in place. 

But what about safety? It is especially that aspect that makes European pilots look at the new developments with a sense of unease. 

Single Pilots Operations project

The concept currently being developed by manufacturers is called extended Minimum Crew Operations (eMCO). It would routinely reduce the number of pilots on the flight deck during operations to a single pilot for significant periods of time. Under eMCO, only one pilot would be required to remain at the controls for extended periods during cruise, while a second resting pilot would be located outside the flight deck. Under these circumstances, there would be no pilots at the controls during physiological breaks or if a pilot became incapacitated. eMCO is currently being considered for implementation in the near and mid-term, with the concept already under evaluation by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. This raises great concern, as eMCO unequivocally introduces significant new risks with unknown consequences.

Is it safe to fly with one pilot?

There are numerous risks associated with eMCO. Some stem from an increased workload for the remaining pilot, while others originate from the elimination of a critical layer of monitoring, cross-checking, and operating redundancy provided by a second pilot on the flight deck. Currently, every aspect of flight safety is deliberately designed for a team with shared responsibilities working together on the flight deck. Division of labor includes operating the aircraft, monitoring flight operations, managing automation, and mitigating the risks that arise in a complex and dynamic environment. Removing one pilot introduces unnecessary safety risks within that system.

The role of automation in single pilot flights

It’s important to note that the pilot community doesn’t oppose advancements in technology and automation. Automation, however, is no replacement for the skills and experience possessed by the two or more pilots who are currently required to be on the flight deck and at the controls at all times. In fact, automation requires human oversight and management to function correctly. Despite the arguments of some industry players, commercial aircraft don’t fly themselves, and even the most sophisticated automation technology isn’t failsafe.

Complex decision-making and the contingency responses that are necessary to ensure flight safety require the engagement of human pilots with the assistance of automation. For this reason, it’s imperative that any further development of automation or increased reliance on automation technology be focused on the goal of enhancing flight safety.

Why two pilots at the controls are essential

Pilots can mitigate safety, security, and operational risks by adapting to changes in circumstances based on situational awareness and experience. These changes in circumstances might result from any number of factors, including direction from air traffic control, weather, equipment malfunctions and anomalies, airport congestion, and flight diversions, as well as in-flight passenger and cargo issues.

There have been many examples in which two or more pilots on the flight deck were needed to recover from equipment malfunctions or other events that otherwise may have led to a negative outcome. Pilots frequently need to address in-flight security concerns that may involve airspace issues, airport and ground-based events, and unruly passengers (including those with possible malicious intent). In addition, the current aviation infrastructure is vulnerable to cybersecurity and in-flight security breaches, including insider threats.

In a situation in which the pilot flying becomes incapacitated, the pilot monitoring must quickly assume control of the aircraft. A prerequisite for this is the ability of both pilots to share a common operational process so that either pilot can quickly adapt to the complexities of a demanding and dynamic environment. Proposed automated solutions do not provide the same margin of safety and security as does having a second rested, qualified, and well-trained pilot physically present on the flight deck at all times.

A significant part of training a professional pilot is mentorship and the transfer of skills and experience. This mentorship has been very effective in the multicrew environment. eMCO would significantly reduce the real-time/real-world opportunities for mentorship, leaving a void for future pilots to acquire the required competencies for safe, efficient, and effective operations.

In the final analysis, arguments for the benefits of eMCO are unsubstantiated and based upon economic motivations such as increasing pilot flight duty productivity. History has shown that focusing on economic gains as the primary goal tends to have a detrimental effect on safety. The safe transport of our passengers and cargo is our greatest responsibility.

Pilots unite against Reduced Crew Operations

Pilots around the globe—including those represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the European Cockpit Association (ECA), and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) along with pilots representing the Associations of Star Alliance Pilots (ASAP), the Oneworld Cockpit Crew Coalition (OCCC), and the SkyTeam Pilots Association (SPA)—are unified in the fight against reduced crew operations. We are engaging in a worldwide campaign to ensure the current standards that have helped make aviation the safest form of transportation won't be eroded.