“Welcome on board! I am the captain, and with me in the cockpit is my first officer”. We got used to this welcome message, but will it persist?
When we watch old aviation movies, we see cockpit crews with more than today’s usual 2 crew members. In addition to the captain and the co-pilot, there used to be an engineer and one in charge of navigation and or communication. What now seems a bit odd was the standard for several years, and no one would have questioned this setup. Only progressing technology made 2 out of the 4 crew members redundant, and we now usually see the 2-person team in front.
You might be interested in reading: How many pilots have to be at the cockpit?
ICAO’s recent announcement
Recently, ICAO made an exciting announcement. Agenda item 30 had the title «Reduced Crew Operations.» Behind this title is hidden a complete change of philosophy. ICAO is considering allowing single-pilot operation (SPO) for commercial flights. The announcement is backed by more than 40 countries in this direction.
The question is not if but when and how SPO will be regulated and accepted. Flying became safer and safer, and the technology was much more reliable. The pilot’s main job is not flying any longer but supervising the systems and acting in case of issues. This might lead to the conclusion that one pilot is still enough.
Obstacles before implementing SPO
The announcement is clear. It is to be investigated if and how SPO can be regulated and implemented. It is obvious that this will not happen in a short time. Nowadays, there is always one pilot in the cockpit and able to react to any occurring issue. Even when one pilot is on the toilet or eating, the other one is quickly able to respond. With one pilot only, these would become impossible in these situations. What if the only pilot on board gets incapacitated? Technical steps may be needed to take control from the ground in such a case.
There might be some steps in between. One option is extended minimum crew operations (eMCO). With this eMCO, one of the pilots would go to rest while the other one is in charge. With this, the same crew could fly longer and would not need a backup crew on board. However, in an emergency situation, it might take too long until the second pilot is back in the cockpit and fully ready. The implementation of eMCO could take around 10 years from now; the implementation of SPO might take longer.
Biggest obstacle – passenger acceptance
While the technology and processes can be created within a reasonable time, there is one obstacle to overcome. The passenger’s feelings about this decision. It is unclear if passengers would accept such a solution – even if there are safety nets. Would you like to be a passenger with just one pilot on board?