Jacopo Prisco, CNN
(CNN) — If you boarded a passenger plane in 1950 and peeked into the cockpit, you would have seen five people in there (almost certainly men): two pilots, a radio operator, a navigator and a flight engineer.
Over the years, technical advances in radio communications, navigation systems and on-board monitoring equipment gradually removed the need for the last three, making it possible to safely fly a passenger plane with just two pilots. That has been the norm in commercial aviation for about 30 years.
Soon, however, things could streamline further, and one of the two remaining pilots — technically the first officer — could soon go, leaving behind only the captain. Many smaller and military aircraft are already manned by a single pilot, but for commercial aviation this would mean venturing into a brave new world.
A challenging transition
“The transition from a two-pilot cockpit to a single-pilot cockpit will be significantly more challenging than the transitions from a five-person cockpit to a two-person cockpit,” says a 2014 study on single-pilot operations by NASA, which has done research on the subject for well over a decade. According to the same study, a properly implemented switch could “provide operating cost savings while maintaining a level of safety no less than conventional two-pilot commercial operations.”
But how do you safely get rid of one pilot? One way is to greatly increase automation in the cockpit, devoting more tasks to computers. Another is to offload the same tasks from the cockpit to the ground, with the remaining pilot working as a member of a “distributed crew.”
The latter approach seems more feasible, at least in the short term, because much of what is required to implement it already exists. “Technologically you could argue that in in a lot of cases we’re already there,” says Patrick Smith, an airline pilot flying Boeing 767 aircraft and the author of the popular book and blog “Ask the Pilot.”
“But by doing that,” he continues, “you eliminate certain redundancies and I have a hard time with that, because I fly aeroplanes for a living and even with two pilots in the cockpit things can become extremely busy — to the point of task saturation for both of them.”
In one scenario, proposed by NASA, the remaining pilot in the cockpit would be supported by a “super dispatcher” on the ground, a trained pilot that could oversee a number of flights at once and even fully control the plane remotely if needed, for example if the cockpit pilot become incapacitated.
Another option is the “harbor pilot,” also a trained pilot but specializing in a specific airport, who could offer assistance with multiple planes arriving and departing from that airport.
NASA has conducted tests for these setups by placing pilots from real crews in separate rooms, before presenting them with difficult flight conditions on a Boeing 737 simulator.
All pilots were able to land their planes safely, but the study showed “significant increases in workload” compared to regular two-crew operations, resulting in “subjective assessments of safety and performance being significantly degraded.” Missing the visual cues from the other pilot sometimes resulted in confusion or uncertainty about which tasks had been completed or not.
Having only one pilot on board would save airlines money, but only if the new ground operators and advanced automation doesn’t end up costing more, NASA says. Additional minor savings could come from smaller or lighter cockpits in future aircraft.
There’s also another way to implement single-pilot operations, but only on long-haul flights, which currently require a third pilot that takes over when one of the other two is resting.
In this scenario, the third pilot would be removed and the two remaining ones would operate normally during takeoff and landing, but take alternating breaks during the cruise portion of the flight.
“In that case, you’re going from two pilots to one pilot in certain regimes of flight,” says Smith. “But in the other regimes of flight and when necessary, there would always still be at least two pilots there. I’m open to that conversation — I’m a lot more amenable to that conversation than the idea of removing a pilot entirely.”
Airbus and Cathay Pacific are already testing this on the A350: “We are engaged in studies on operational patterns for flight crew on long-range flights,” an Airbus spokesperson confirmed to CNN. “These studies are ongoing and based on a minimum of two operating crew per flight. They are being undertaken in conjunction with the regulatory authorities and airline partners.” The goal is to certify the A350 for this kind of operation over the next few years.
Cathay Pacific also confirmed its involvement as “one of a number of airlines engaging with Airbus,” a spokesperson told CNN, and that “this is a long-term commitment to a project that is still very much in its conceptual stage.” They added that, even if the concept is approved and introduced in the future, “all of the aircraft in [Cathay Pacific’s] existing fleet are certified to operate with a minimum of two pilots on board and that there is no plan to reduce that number.”
Airlines are accelerating on single-pilot operations not just because it could save them money, but because of a looming pilot shortage on the horizon.
Boeing predicts a need for 600,000 new pilots in the next two decades, but by some estimates there will be a shortfall of at least 34,000 pilots globally by 2025. Reducing the number of pilots on some crews or aircraft could help mitigate the impact of this.
However, the group that will offer the strongest opposition will likely be pilots themselves.
“That’s because we’re advocating on our behalf to save our jobs, but also because we have a pretty good understanding of how commercial aeroplanes operate and the vastness of the challenges involved,” says Smith.
The Airline Pilots Association, International (ALPA), the largest airline pilot union in the world, released a paper in 2019 about the dangers of single-pilot operations. It called the idea “premature” and based on “many costly and unproven technologies,” and stated that “the most vital safety feature in transport-category aircraft now and for the foreseeable future [is] two experienced, trained, and rested professional pilots in the cockpit.”
The paper also says that no autonomous system can compensate for an incapacitated pilot, and that there are many examples of incidents where two pilots in the cockpit were needed to recover from equipment malfunctions that otherwise would have likely resulted in disaster.
One such incident, often cited as a brilliant example of cockpit collaboration, is the casualty-free 2009 Hudson river landing of damaged US Airways Flight 1549 by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles.
The 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525, during which the first officer locked himself in the cockpit while the captain was on a bathroom break, then intentionally crashed the plane into a mountain in an apparent suicide, is also often brought up to highlight the risks of leaving a single individual at the controls of an aircraft.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle on the path to a single pilot will be selling the idea to passengers. In 2019 Don Harris, a professor of human factors at Coventry University in the UK, conducted a focus group and survey on the prospect of flying on an airliner with just one pilot.
Just about 50% of participants said they’d be willing to take that flight, and the general consensus was that removing a pilot is “dangerous until proven safe.” The three factors that weighed the most in the participants’ decision process were the state of the pilot, trust in the technology and a combination of ticket price and airline reputation, signaling that a significantly reduced fare would help sell the idea. In the study, Harris concludes that the single-crew airliner is still probably 20 years away, but that legislative developments could make that a reality sooner, albeit only for cargo aircraft.
Smith agrees: “Maybe there’s room for something like that further down the the aviation chain, small aeroplanes or cargo operations, air taxi operations, charters. But implementing that at the major airline level, that’s a long way off.”
According to Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, the move will take many more years, although it’s inevitable: “I don’t think passenger perception is very important, but establishing guaranteed and secure data links with ground stations is a must, and of course an appropriate amount of time for regulators and insurance people to get comfortable with this too.”
Removing a pilot from the cockpit, however, will help develop the very technology required for the next, and final, step: removing human pilots altogether and fly planes remotely or autonomously. That, however, sounds like an even more complicated conversation: “Two pilots to one pilot is a major step,” says Smith, “but one pilot to no pilots is an immense one.”