How safety, technology and public perception will define viability of single pilot operations

The cockpit of a Cessna Citation private jet., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – During this past May in Paris, two pilots of an Airbus A320 flying an RNAV (GPS) approach came within six feet of the ground in the Charles de Gaulle (LFPG) Airport.

Roughly a month earlier two pilots of a Boeing 777 also flying into Charles de Gaulle were not on the same page and unintentionally wrestled each other for control of the aircraft, resulting in a missed approach and a safe landing on their second attempt.

Remember the Air France 447 crash in 2009? In that case, the pilots were trying to bring the aircraft out of a stall but failed to do so because they were applying opposing inputs, resulting in a canceling effect. 4 pilots were on the aircraft that day.

Psychology and time play a defining role, as Nobel-prize-winning economist and cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon suggested. He originally introduced the concept of heuristics in psychology in the 1950s.

He suggested that while people strive to make rational choices, human judgment is subject to cognitive limitations. Purely rational decisions would involve considering all the potential costs and possible benefits of every alternative.

But people are limited by the amount of time they have to make a choice as well as the volume of information they have at their disposal. Other factors such as overall intelligence and accuracy of perceptions also influence the decision-making process.

Back to aviation. There’s a reason why training for the past half a century has been assembled for dual pilot operation – redundancy exists to avoid single points of failure.

While I expressed some examples of pilot-induced accidents, it is a fact that today, the whole system is prepared for two pilots and that a cost-cutting approach by EASA (also due to pilot shortages) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has received pressure by airlines to work on standards that allow SPO, must be thoroughly debated.

The previous comes without any strings to the conversation – as a private jet pilot and founder of private aviation company Icarus Jet, I am well aware of the possibilities, benefits and utmost safety that flying a single-pilot aircraft brings to the table.

Some private aircraft are approved for SPO, and others require two pilots in the cockpit. While both industries are different and it only makes sense that a private pilot-owner can single-handedly fly his certified aircraft (small jets are designed for that purpose), the same cannot be proposed for larger airliners.

Important to acknowledge is that private jets like the Citation V, Phenom 100/300, King Air, and the new Cirrus jets are certified for single-pilot private operations, yet they require two pilots for any commercial operation.

In terms of safety for those private single-pilot operations, the Autoland function on Garmin Avionics is a true game changer, where a push of a button on the control panel will select the nearest suitable airport and land on autopilot in case the sole pilot is incapacitated. Technology at its finest.

Furthermore, what concerns me the most is that this push for SPO is probably coming from decision-makers without any experience in the cockpit, naturally interested in cutting costs and jumping the pilot shortage barrier. Spoiler alert: those who don’t fly aren’t truly aware of the many risks in the sky.

At this point in time, with the limited information that we have, and although projected for the end of the decade, the move feels short-sighted.

It will take manufacturers literally decades to come with the technology to adapt the entire operation of an airliner to function with only one pilot, without even mentioning all the regulations that need to be in place and the complete reshuffle of the training programs.

Public perception will play a vital role

With technology and preparation (training) comes safety, two key variables that need to be well integrated into a potential industry-wide SPO integration.

While a long shot, it might still be achievable if all the industry stakeholders work in synchronicity – primarily regulators, manufacturers, and airlines. But what about the most important stakeholders of all? Yes, the passengers.

How can the industry truly convince you that flying a massive 300-seat aircraft across the Atlantic with only one pilot at the helm is safe? That will take more than just technology, my friends.

I truly believe that shifting the public perception will be the hardest task throughout this effort, while at a close second place comes convincing pilots that this is the best flight path for the industry in the foreseeable future.

Our customer service team at Icarus Jet performed an online survey that openly asked if a single pilot operation is safe. While 54% said ‘no’ – no surprise here – it was interesting to acknowledge that 36% thought that it will depend on the type of operation whether they perceive if it’s safe or not.

This level of discernment should provide some hope to industry lobbyists looking to drive the message toward safe single-pilot operations. Only 10% responded positively to our question.

In conclusion, I’m not here to say that single-pilot operations are safe or unsafe, nor do I have a hidden agenda to try to maintain the status quo of two pilots in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft.

I firmly believe that this discussion needs to consistently happen at all levels, from authorities to consumers, and that the latter will have a crucial role to play. Frequently informing the public during the process will be a key driver for a positive long-term outcome when a final decision is made.

About the Author

Pilot, president, and founder of Icarus Jet, a leading global trip support and aircraft management company, Kevin Singh has flown globally as a chief pilot and captain on private jets like the Hawker 800-A and 850 XP, and the Challenger 600 series and Global 6000.  

Check Out Our Socials!

Up Coming Events

Paris Airshow 2023 18-23 June
Be Sure To Check out our 24 Live blog for Live and accurate Coverage of the Airshow!

Popular Posts

You May Also Be Intrested In

More News.....

On Key