Back in the day, there used to be three pilots in the cockpit of commercial passenger planes. But when Boeing changed the cockpit design of its 757s in the 1980s it was down to two.
Now Boeing is developing technology that will enable them to manufacture safe single-pilot planes. If they succeed, they will cut down the number of pilots required to fly their planes, which, in turn, will cut the costs of both training and salaries. It would also be a solution for a pilot shortage in certain areas.
According to Boeing, they will pioneer cargo transport single-pilot planes before passenger planes. This is largely to ensure they get public support and trust for the concept.
The Concept of Single-Pilot Passenger Planes Goes Public
At an airshow in Singapore earlier this year, Singapore Technologies Engineering ST Aerospace demonstrated how cockpits could be modified for one pilot when passenger jets are converted to cargo freighters.
While there has been global interest in the concept, it is not a reality yet. Nevertheless, according to the director-general of Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority, Kevin Shum, flight technology is sufficiently advanced for it become a reality in as few as five years.
Would it be Safe to Fly With Only One Pilot?
Safety is, of course, the greatest concern. With two pilots, if one is incapacitated for any reason, or is distracted or suffers from fatigue, there is another trained person to take over the controls. Even if nothing goes wrong during the flight, the workload for one person is currently considered unacceptable, particularly on long intercontinental flights.
Yet, the consensus seems to be that single-pilot planes would be great for transporting cargo. In fact, there is even considerable enthusiasm for autonomous cargo planes.
The Swiss multi-national investment bank and financial services company, UBS Group AC published an extensive report in July that estimated a potential profit of $15 billion if single-pilot planes were used. This would increase to $35 billion of the planes were autonomous.
While this report predicted long-haul commercial passenger flights switching to reduced cockpit crews as early as 2023, it conceded that the biggest challenge would be consumer acceptance. The company’s surveys indicate that 52 percent of people are opposed to the idea of single-pilot aircraft.
But what do pilots think?
According to an article published by Bloomberg in October, the president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, Lee Collins said it would be inviting catastrophe to have any fewer than two pilots in the cockpit. Apart from anything else, it would invite terrorist hijackings, he said.
President of the largest U.S. pilot union, Air Line Pilots Association, Tim Cannoll said single-pilot operations were unsafe and as such should be totally unacceptable to Americans.
The view most commonly held by pilots is that aviation depends on human judgment when it comes to the myriad of unexpected events that can happen in the air.
Even though much of modern aircraft operations are already automated, the argument is that pilots are still required to monitor instruments in flight. If something goes wrong, they can intervene manually.
The Boeing Approach to Single-Pilot Planes
It is known that Boeing is actively developing the technology required to make single-pilot planes a reality.
A Boeing vice-president, Steve Nordlund has been quoted as saying autonomous technology which will permit a reduction in onboard crew on their aircraft is being developed at “good speed.”
He confirmed that Boeing has faith in self-piloted aircraft and autonomous flights. While cargo jets would probably be the first to trial the new technology, he said it made business sense to follow through to passenger planes.
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