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 operations."

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 said. 

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 between pilots. 

"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 tasks."


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