At present, all passenger jet aircraft have two pilots on the flight deck, and European aviation rules state that this must be the case. But there are signs that this could be about to change. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing are actively working on technology which would remove the need to have two pilots, and they claim that in the near distant future one single pilot could fly every aircraft. Steve Nordlund, a vice president at Boeing, claims that more automation would allow this to happen safely. It was pointed out that there had gradually been a reduction in flight crew over the years, from having up to six crew acting as pilots, flight engineers, navigators and radio operators in the 1940s, to two individuals doing everything required which we have today. Planes have been gradually becoming more automated; autopilots are used routinely, and autoland systems are quite common. A reduction to one pilot, some say, is simply a natural continuation of this trend.
The Advantages of Having Only One Pilot
Of course, having a single pilot would save on costs and manpower. Airlines are always looking at ways to operate more economically, and halving the number of pilots would make a great deal of difference. Also, there have been concerns that everything points to a shortage of pilots in the years ahead. There are not enough new pilots in training to replace those who will be retiring in the near future. So reducing pilot numbers seems to make good business sense.
Single Pilot Passenger Planes: The Possible Disadvantages
It is the safety aspects of single pilot operations which concern many people. Most experts believe that the present system, where one pilot flies and the other checks everything and provides backup, is absolutely crucial from a safety point of view. Dr Rob Hunter, Head of Flight Safety at the pilot’s union BALPA, voiced the concerns of many when he said that there could be a “greater number of occasions when the both the machine and the pilot becomes overwhelmed”. Despite automation, there are times when piloting and decision-making skills are crucial. This is particularly the case in the event of an in-flight emergency. If that happens, pilots often need to take over from technology – and when trouble shooting, two heads are better than one.
Even if the safety issues can be overcome, persuading the public to accept single pilot aircraft could be a different matter. Aircraft passengers worry about safety, particularly since the case in March 2015, when a Germanwings pilot flew an A320 into the ground, killing all 150 people on board, after having locked his co-pilot out of the flight deck. Passengers may not like having only one pilot up in front. Indeed, even Boeing realise that this initiative may ultimately depend on passenger acceptance.
A Possible Compromise
With all of this in mind, Boeing have suggested that single pilot operations might be trialled in the cargo sector, where passenger concerns would be taken out of the equation. This would, of course, save significantly on costs, while allowing time for everyone to get used to the idea.
Then, after that, who knows…
Helen is a retired pilot and flight instructor who has traveled around the world and visited more than 70 countries. An award-winning journalist and author, she has been writing for world-class aviation-focused publications.