MONTREAL, CANADA — Pilot unions are strongly opposing single-pilot operations for commercial aircraft, labeling these automation-dependent concepts as profit-driven and posing significant safety risks.

The Air Line Pilots Association International, European Cockpit Association, and International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations have formed a coalition to counter such initiatives and are committed to protecting the safety of passengers.

These pilot groups argue that despite advancements in automation and technology, having two pilots in control remains the most crucial safety aspect of an aircraft. Pilots can address system failures, provide backup for malfunctioning systems, bridge technological gaps, and adapt to unforeseen situations and emergencies in real time.

The newly formed coalition aims to counter corporate-driven lobbying efforts targeting regulators worldwide, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The ICAO, a UN agency focused on promoting safe and efficient air transport, has been exploring new operational concepts such as full automation and extended minimum crew operations for years. However, they recognize that public and pilot acceptance will be a significant hurdle to modifying the established two-pilot rule in commercial aviation.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency is also researching the feasibility of removing one pilot from the cockpit for either part or the entire flight without compromising safety. It is looking into extended minimum-crew operations as a potential path toward single-pilot operations.

Airbus has tested autonomous flight concepts with an A350-1000 test aircraft, including emergency diversion and landing, but maintains its support for dual-pilot operations. However, some experts believe the industry will not shift towards single-pilot operations in the near future.

“I don’t expect to see a move to single-pilot operation in the next 15-20, even 25 years,” Willie Walsh, director general of IATA, said in December.

Aircraft manufacturers and airline operators see single-pilot operations as a transition period for pilotless flights. The ultimate goal of Boeing and Airbus is to develop autonomous systems that can safely and efficiently fly commercial aircraft without human intervention, potentially reducing operational costs and addressing the growing demand for air travel. 

Key research areas and challenges in this field include:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML)

AI and ML algorithms play a critical role in developing advanced autopilot systems that can handle complex flight scenarios, respond to unexpected events, and make data-driven decisions in real time. Researchers are continuously improving these algorithms to enhance their performance and reliability.

Sensor technologies

Advanced sensor systems are essential for providing aircraft with a detailed understanding of their environment. Technologies such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging), and computer vision are being studied to enhance aircraft situational awareness and improve decision-making capabilities.

Communication and data sharing

To ensure safe operations, autonomous aircraft require robust and reliable communication systems. Researchers are working on enhancing communication technologies such as satellite-based systems, 5G networks, and dedicated aviation communication infrastructure for seamless data transmission and sharing between aircraft and ground control centers.


As pilotless aircraft rely heavily on digital systems and communication, ensuring robust cybersecurity is crucial to protect against potential threats and unauthorized access. Researchers are working on enhancing cybersecurity measures and developing fail-safe systems to minimize risks associated with cyber-attacks.

Regulatory frameworks and certification

To enable pilotless commercial aircraft operations, significant changes to existing aviation regulations and certification processes will be required. Regulatory authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) are working closely with industry stakeholders to develop appropriate frameworks and safety standards for autonomous aircraft.

Public acceptance and trust

Building public trust in autonomous aircraft is critical for the widespread adoption of pilotless commercial operations. Researchers are working on addressing concerns related to safety, reliability, and accountability to ensure public confidence in this new technology.