As the aviation industry grows, it is encountering an age-old supply and demand problem: more routes, more flights, but not enough pilots. Plane manufacturers are now exploring whether or not new technology that could decrease the cockpit crew to a single pilot might be the solution to this shortage, but critics voice concerns regarding safety.
Are single-pilot flights coming our way? Some proponents of emerging technology that could reduce the number of crew needed for a flight argue that aviation’s pilot shortage will make such a change inevitable. Reuters reports that manufacturers are currently working on building new cockpits that could be piloted by a single aviator, and that the technology could be ready for widespread use as early as 2023. This decrease in the piloting crew would not be the first in aviation history, as improved designs in the 1980s saw the elimination of the flight engineer position from the cockpit.
But changing the number of pilots from three to two is an altogether different proposition from switching from two to one, critics say.
Their concerns primarily center around safety. Increased pilot fatigue would almost certainly be a factor, as well as the possibility of less experienced pilots facing challenging flight situations or emergencies without another, more senior pilot to guide them. As Stuart Beveridge, a commercial pilot and aviation researcher, told Reuters, “the first officer role is considered an apprentice step before taking on the responsibilities of a captain.” Other pilots expressed similar hesitations, citing scenarios like 2009’s Air France 447 crash.
And then there is the question of whether or not passengers would even accept single-pilot flights. While experts say that one-pilot planes would first be rolled out for cargo flights, Reuters reports a poll that shows only 13 percent of commercial passengers would feel comfortable being flown by a single pilot. Without positive public opinion, carriers would have little incentive to take on the costs of retrofitting their designs. Aviation consultant James Halstead notes to Reuters that the cost-benefit analysis overall might not work in favor of the new technology anyway: “On long-haul, crewing is a tiny proportion of the cost, compared to the fuel and the capital cost of the equipment. It outweighs paying the salary of one pilot.”