It will likely be more than a decade before single-pilot
cockpits have any chance of debuting on commercial passenger flights, but the
prospect of such a development already has the country's largest pilots union
warning against its pitfalls.
"Eliminating this critical layer of redundancy would
inevitably reduce flight safety, a fact that is well documented both in
technical research and pilot experience," the Air Line Pilots Association
International (ALPA) said in a white paper it released last month.
The idea of leveraging technology to make single-pilot
operations safe enough for commercial flying has been explored for years,
including in studies conducted by the FAA and NASA. In general, the concept
would entail having a lone pilot in the cockpit, with a second pilot providing
support as needed via an air-to-ground connection. That pilot would also be
able to take over the aircraft in an emergency.
The idea has appeal to airlines because of its potential
cost-saving benefits. Further, reducing the number of pilots in the cockpit
could alleviate hiring pressure on an industry that is experiencing a global
pilot shortage. Boeing estimates that airlines will need to hire 645,000
commercial pilots worldwide over the next 20 years to meet demand.
In a spring survey by the financial management firm
Jefferies, several airline executives and aircraft lessors around the world
revealed that single-pilot cockpits are an advancement they'd be interested in
seeing developed by Boeing once the aircraft manufacturer moves forward with a
new midmarket aircraft.
"The second pilot would monitor several aircraft from a
remote ground station," Jefferies analysts Sheila Kahyaoglu and Greg
Konrad wrote in a May note. "This technology is 10 years away, but the
capability to offer this would be valuable."
For the past few years, Boeing has been weighing the
introduction of a midsize jetliner that would replace its 757 and 767 models.
The program's launch, however, has been delayed as the company has been forced
to focus its attention on getting the 737 Max back in the skies.
However, in a brief email, Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman
said the design of the midsize airplane "is not based on single-pilot
Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst with the
Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, said he believes single-pilot short-haul,
commercial operations are 20 years away.
"It's not going to happen anytime soon, but it will
happen," he said.
The leading edge of such a development, Aboulafia added,
would be the cargo industry, starting with short-distance flights.
Key to the implementation of single-pilot commercial
operations will be the development of guaranteed, uninterrupted encryption
ability, so that the ground pilot could take control of the plane no matter
where it is, Aboulafia said. A technological alternative would be truly
autonomous capabilities. While such technologies already exist, they haven't
reached levels that are sufficiently safe for commercial operations, Aboulafia
Congress has shown at least some interest in advancing such
capabilities. Language that would have mandated the FAA and NASA to begin a
program to support single-piloted cargo aircraft was included in the initial
House version of the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, but it was removed before
the bill's passage in October.
In its white paper, ALPA raised several concerns, including
the physical security and cybersecurity issues resulting from a greater
reliance on remote ground capabilities and the blow to nonverbal communication
"People in everyday life rely on nonverbal
communications and cues," ALPA said. "These cues are especially
important in the cockpit, where pilots are constantly engaged in a multitude of