Key Points:

  • European manufacturers, Airbus and Dassault, advocate for one-pilot operations during majority of long-haul flights.

  • Pilot unions emphasize risks associated with fewer pilots, referencing incidents like the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash.

  • EASA, Europe's aviation regulator, may endorse the concept by 2027, but the U.S. FAA remains hesitant.

Rising Automation: Future of Commercial Flights with Fewer Pilots?

PARIS — As technology evolves, plane manufacturers like Airbus and Dassault in Europe are championing the concept of planes being flown with a single pilot during most of a long-haul journey. This idea has not yet received widespread endorsement from their airline clientele. However, it's causing a stir among pilot unions, which argue that having less than two pilots onboard is a perilous venture.

Captain Otjan de Bruijn, of KLM and president of the European Cockpit Association, describes this movement as a commercial gambit fraught with substantial risks for everyone onboard. Tragic events such as the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 crash underscore these concerns. In that incident, one pilot purposely downed the plane, killing all 150 people onboard, during the other pilot's restroom break. Such events bring to light potential dangers, especially during moments when a single pilot might temporarily leave the cockpit.

The Air Line Pilots Association, alongside its European allies, has initiated a campaign titled "Safety Starts With Two," aiming to communicate potential risks directly to passengers. In response to the mounting concerns, Janet Northcote, EASA’s communications director, stated that any approval for reduced crew flights would necessitate proof from manufacturers that the safety standards are comparable to current two-pilot operations.

On the other hand, while planes from recent generations might require modifications to fit this new operational model, future aircraft might be designed from the ground up with single-pilot operations in mind.

Although flight automation has seen consistent growth, the industry now stands at a precipice as it debates reducing cockpit crews. The discussion has intensified due to airlines reporting difficulties in hiring sufficient pilots. Martha Neubauer from AeroDynamic advisory consultancy believes that the current pilot shortage may be fuelling interest in these new crew models. However, she also contends that despite potential savings, airlines need to weigh them against safety concerns.

The continued push for reduced crew numbers is driven primarily by economic factors, argues ALPA President Jason Ambrosi. He suggests that even with fewer pilots, certain situations would still necessitate backup pilots, nullifying potential savings.

John Breyault of the National Consumers League sees the move towards single-pilot operations as part of a broader industry trend aimed at cutting costs. He emphasizes the pilot's role as the final safety measure for commercial flights. Additionally, in the U.S., the memory of the 2009 Colgan Flight 3047 crash serves as a staunch reminder of the importance of safety in aviation.

In the current scenario, while many airlines have not publicly endorsed the idea of reduced crews, some cargo carriers in the U.S. have expressed interest. As Ambrosi notes, even if major operators remain uninterested now, this could change under competitive and operational pressures.