Airlines ask ICAO for lone pilot flights

Lucas also worries about the lost opportunities to mentor junior pilots if flight crew are working increasingly on their own.


The planned changes bring many challenges. It’s not yet clear what would happen if a lone pilot collapsed or started flying erratically. Automation, technology and remote assistance from the ground would somehow have to replace the expertise, safety and immediacy of a second pilot.

Aviation has been moving toward this point for decades. In the 1950s, commercial aircraft cockpits were more crowded, typically with a captain, first officer or co-pilot, a flight engineer, a navigator and a radio operator. Advances in technology gradually made the last three positions redundant.

“We are potentially removing the last piece of human redundancy from the flight deck,” Janet Northcote, EASA’s head of communications, wrote in an email.

One condition for single-pilot operations is that it is at least as safe as with two people at the controls, according to an EU request to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the UN aviation standards body.

“The psychological barriers are probably harder than the technological barriers,” Boeing Southeast Asia President Alexander Feldman said at a Bloomberg business summit in Bangkok last week. “The technology is there for single pilots, it’s really about where the regulators and the general public feel comfortable.”

A first step would be to allow solo piloting when aircraft are cruising, typically a less busy period than takeoff and landing. That would allow the other pilot to rest in the cabin, rather than staying in the cockpit to help fly the plane.

By alternating breaks in this manner, a two-person crew could fly longer routes without the help – and expense – of an extra pilot.

Ultimately, flying could be fully automated with minimal oversight from a pilot in the cockpit. The system could detect if the pilot for whatever reason became incapacitated and then land the plane by itself at a preselected airport, according to EASA. Such flights aren’t likely until well after 2030, it said.

The value of having two pilots up front was famously borne out on January 15, 2009, when a US Airways plane struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff and lost power in both engines. The captain, Chesley Sullenberger, and first officer Jeffrey Skiles together managed to land the Airbus A320 on the Hudson River. No one died. The incident became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

Nothing to date has proved safer than “a second rested, qualified, well-trained pilot physically present on the flight deck,” the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations told ICAO in a paper for its assembly last month.

“Commercial airline passengers absolutely expect and deserve two pilots in the cockpit,” said Joe Leader, chief executive officer of Apex, a New York-based aviation association that focuses on passengers’ experiences.

Airbus said in an email it is assessing how its planes might be flown by smaller crews. For now, the planemaker is collaborating with airlines and regulators to see if two pilots could safely replace three-person crews on long-haul flights.

Carriers are looking into single-pilot flights, including China Eastern Airlines, which suffered a fatal crash in March. A pilot at the Shanghai-based airline co-authored research last month that assessed how takeoff and landing tasks could be automated or completed with the help from a ground station.

EASA said it is aware of concerns about solo flying and that addressing them is part of the process.

“These concepts will not be implemented until the aviation community is comfortable that operations will be at least as safe as they are today,” Northcote said.


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