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Single pilot Airbus?

Manufacturer, airlinesface an uphill battle

Two heads are better than one, right? That’s the principle behind the two-crew requirement for air carrier operations, anyway.
Jeff Tibbitts

Insurance companies also like the idea of having two pilots up front, and in some cases they may even require it in order to be insured. Miss a memory item? Enter a wrong fix identifier? Things like that are more likely to be caught in time by chore-splitting in a two-crew environment. Plus, it’s a good way to season crewmembers new to the job—or airplane. For all these reasons and more, two-crew operations have been ingrained as a good safety practice.

That may be about to change. Airbus recently held a conference in which it advanced the idea of single-pilot operations. The company said it was in talks with Cathay Pacific about the idea of using a single pilot in the cockpits of long-haul flights. A second pilot would rotate duties. This concept would be introduced gradually, Airbus said, and safety wouldn’t be compromised because automation would manage most chores.

True, automation has its advantages. Fly-by-wire flight control systems lighten pilot workload and are backed up by redundant features. Integrated flight control systems can make for hands-free flying from gear up to short final. Head-up displays paired with enhanced vision systems allow approaches to lower minimums. Autoland can make safe landings in zero-zero conditions.

So why not fly single-pilot? It’s not like two-crew is an iron-clad guarantee of safety.

The crew of a Boeing 757 on approach to the Cali, Colombia, airport entered a wrong fix identifier into the autopilot, and the airplane dutifully turned to it and flew into a mountain.

The crew of an A330, after a one-minute encounter with icing, managed to lose control of the airplane and crash into the Atlantic.

There are plenty of other cases where the two-crew concept broke down, but there must be thousands of cases where one pilot caught the mistakes of another and saved the day.

Let’s not lose sight of the main driver behind any move to make the airlines go single-pilot: money. There’s a lot to be saved by halving the flight crew payroll. Of course, none of this will happen without a huge uproar from the pilots’ unions and a major debate in the worldwide regulatory community—one even bigger than past crew regulatory battles, like the ones years ago that attended the elimination of the flight engineer crew position.

Then, as now, automation, systems improvements, engine reliability, and workload reduction were used to argue for doing away with the crewmember who “flew sideways.”

Automation is great, but I think most of us would feel more reassured knowing that there are two up front. For that matter, so would a solo pilot toting 200-plus passengers. Sorry, Airbus, but any switch to solo should happen later rather than sooner, and only after a long, long, unbiased evaluation period.

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Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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