Boeing has been testing whether or not single-pilot jets are feasible. They have started with cargo flights, and the change could lead to airlines saving substantial money. The airlines could cut down on pilot salaries and training costs if the concept can be applied to passenger jets as well.
It will first be demonstrated in the freight business.
“We are studying that, and where you will first see that is probably in cargo transport, so the passenger question is off the table,” Boeing research and technology vice-president Charles Toups said about one-pilot operations, according to the Guardian.
Gaining public support for the concept would start with the proliferation of self-driving cars and would be a step-by-step process, he added.
Global interest in one pilot concept
It has become critical to earn public trust and ensure safety in the last few years with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and an intentional crash by a Germanwings pilot.
Boeing will work together with General Motors to establish technologies for autonomous flights. The concept of the single-pilot flying was displayed at the Singapore Airshow this week. Singapore Technologies Engineering’s ST Aerospace showed the way a cockpit could be modified for one pilot when the firm would convert passenger jets to freighters.
“The interest is global,” ST Aerospace’s chief operating officer, Jeffrey Lam said, according to the Guardian.
“I think some [cargo operators] are watching each other; quite certainly if one jumps on board, you would expect the others to not want to fall behind because there’s a lot of cost savings here.”
Although some small business jets can be flown by a single pilot, commercial jets which carry passengers and cargo require two pilots in the cockpit at the controls.
That provides protection if one of the pilots is unfit to work and helps with the cockpit workload.
Regional cargo flights first target
Regulators have globally introduced rules requiring two people in the cockpit at all times following the Germanwings crash in 2015, where a mentally not stable pilot locked himself into the cockpit and crashed the plane into the Alps.
The rules were however lifted two years later after they were found to offer not much in terms of security.
At the moment, regional cargo flights seem the most realistic area to try single-pilot flying. Flight technology is advanced enough to create a single-pilot cockpit in as little as five years, according to experts.
Human factors such as incapacitation, distraction and exhaustion could be the largest problems to concern regulators. Airbus and Boeing jets are designed for two pilots. If one pilot were to be taken out, this would require a total re-design of the flight deck. Controllers on the ground would have to take over if they have to, and more semi-automated systems will also be required.
A NASA study published in September found that US airline pilots tested alone in Boeing 737 simulators said that the workload was unacceptable even in normal flight conditions. The study showed that the prospect of having one pilot take a nap with the other sitting at the controls was more believable.
This points out to the fact that it may be possible for airlines to reduce long-distance crew numbers in the future. At the moment there can be up to five pilots on board to alternate between flying and resting on very long flights.
Pilots emphasize that safety is the most important factor, even in cargo operations, although there is little data on the number of times human intervention has saved planes.