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The Debate Over Single-Pilot Operations in Commercial Aviation



Airlines and manufacturers have been testing technology to implement single-pilot operations. However, before the concept can be enacted, other stakeholders within the industry have rejected the technology, including some major aviation builders.


"Having a single pilot on a commercial aircraft goes against the evidence and logic, one way we have made commercial aviation ultra-safe is to have two experienced and qualified pilots in each cockpit," said Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot who, in 2018, along with his first officer Jeffrey Skiles, successfully landed a US Airways Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in New York, USA.


"All of the safety protocols we have are based on two pilots working together seamlessly as a team of experts who verify, back each other up, manage the workload, detect and correct errors, and even collaborate without words in situations where time pressure and workload are high," Sully said.


In more recent events, in January 2023, Sully, along with Jason Ambrosi, President of the International Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), co-authored a blog post entitled "Two Pilots in Each Airline Flight Deck Make the Difference," published to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the "Miracle on the Hudson."


In the post, the pair emphasized the importance of having at least two trained pilots in the cockpit.


Additionally, on March 27, 2023, ALPA, along with the European Cabin Association (ECA) and the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFALPA), announced that the unions had formed a coalition to prevent airlines and manufacturers from moving forward with plans to remove pilots from the flight deck, a scheme driven by profit that poses a significant safety risk.

However, regulators are still not rushing to approve airlines flying with a single pilot in the cockpit and continue to conduct investigations.


The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), for example, is conducting a project with the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) to evaluate Extended Minimum Crew Operations-Single-Pilot Operations (eMCO-SiPO).


To do this, EASA has allocated €930,000 to the project, which is expected to conclude in August 2024.


The agency aims to address several critical areas, such as pilot workload, pilot error situations, pilot incapacitation, fatigue, sleep inertia, and rest due to physiological needs.


While technology development is advancing, airlines and manufacturers will still have to overcome opposition from various pilot unions and aviation professionals worldwide, and supporters of the concept will also need to influence public opinion if a single pilot operating a commercial flight, or even certain stages of the flight, is to become a reality.


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