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Single-Pilot Cockpit: Predictable resistance – Predictable outcome

Single-Pilot Cockpit: Predictable resistance – predictable outcome

U.S. pilot labor groups are very busy these days. They are lobbying congress to remove from a piece of legislation a provision that would enable NASA and FAA to research single-piloted commercial aircraft. But the underlying issue, a real hot potato, is a global one.

This discussion reminds me of the debate decades ago when airlines went from 4 cockpit crew to 3, and then again from 3 to 2.

We may not like to hear it, but if it can be done, it will be done. Inevitably. It’s what history teaches us about technological breakthroughs. Consider: Aircraft manufacturers have long proven it can be done. Military drones fly and strike with maximum precision all the time. And they do it with zero (!) pilots on board. Hardware, software, systems, it is all here. Powerful future AI will only enhance these capabilities.

What’s more, the economics are just too compelling. Highly skilled and well organized, pilots just happen to earn some of the highest salaries in any airline. The prospect of serious savings in this cost category is just too tempting. Plus, airlines are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit enough pilots to staff their expanding fleets. So they resort to poaching which in turn drives crew costs even higher.

Like it or not, single-pilot flying will happen. My guess is it will be tested in environments that appear less risky: Air cargo, short haul, over water and in domestic air spaces where a single regulator can define the rules. Think Russia, or Brazil, or China. Insurance companies will monitor closely and weigh in. Once reliability has been demonstrated adoption elsewhere will be rapid.

Passengers, too, will learn to accept it. Remember the heated arguments over ETOPS operations? Some airlines kept buying three- and four-engine planes, believing passengers would never risk crossing an ocean on a twin. In hindsight a strategic misjudgment. Today nobody blinks an eye when boarding over water super long-haul flights on 777s or A350s. Yes, passengers will get used to flying in aircraft piloted by a single captain on board. And the marketing folks will find ways to educate them that they are in fact in the capable hands of three (!) pilots: One human in the cockpit, one human on the ground, and a highly redundant autopilot on top.


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