Published on November 24th, 2021 📆 | 8248 Views ⚑0
Technology takes aim at co-pilots – POLITICO
Press play to listen to this article
Aircraft pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright had to resort to a coin toss to decide who would attempt the first powered flight, but almost all modern aviation relies on at least two pilots in the cockpit.
That could soon change, as airlines and planemakers develop new technology that would rely to a greater extent on automation and eliminate the need for a co-pilot.
But while manufacturers argue the move could improve flight safety, crews fear it will do the opposite.
“Fact of life is that safety on board of an aircraft is highly dependant on the human factor,” said Annette Groeneveld, president of the European Cabin Crew Association. “To detect system failure, to help each other to perform at the highest level, four eyes see more than only one set.”
In Europe, the move from two pilots to one is being spearheaded by Airbus, which is working on several projects to increase automation on board, including an autonomous take-off, taxiing and landing scheme (ATTOL) and a plan to certify its A350 jets for single-pilot operations.
Last year it trialed its first ATTOL demonstrator, in which an empty passenger plane took off, taxied and landed using automation and onboard image recognition tech — albeit with two pilots in the cockpit.
“Autonomous flight has the potential to deliver increased fuel savings, reduce the operating costs of airlines, and support pilots in their strategic decision-making and mission management,” Airbus says on its website.
Increasing onboard automation also frees up pilots to find a “better balance between working and resting time,” according to the company.
The European Commission is also getting involved, providing funding for a project that will assess “new crew and team configurations,” including human-machine teaming and a supervisory role for automation. It foresees using artificial intelligence as a “digital assistant” to “earn the trust of the crew and public,” with the goal of eventually allowing AI to take over operations, according to a call for tender on the project.
Reducing the human role in aviation isn’t exactly a new concept; Airbus already uses auto-piloted commercial aircraft, space launchers, satellites and drones. EU regulators have approved sole-pilot planes for non-commercial use, and aircraft carrying a very small number of passengers are often flown by a single pilot.
But the habitual use of a lone pilot on larger commercial jets is an altogether different proposition — and one that comes with a raft of new safety concerns.
Getting single-pilot flights off the ground will require the sign-off of the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is currently evaluating two potential operational models for the flights.
The first, known as “extended minimum-crew operations,” would see two pilots on board, but only one at the controls during the cruise phase, during which the second rests. The model is not dissimilar to what currently happens on long-haul flights.
The second, known as end-to-end single-pilot operations, would involve the aircraft being flown by a single pilot for the whole flight.
EASA has said it will only sign off on the concepts if “an equivalent or better level of safety to today’s two-pilot operations can be assured” and warned that is has spotted a “number of factors” that need to be addressed.
In particular, the agency is investigating the scheme’s effects on pilot workload and fatigue, as well as error management and situation awareness. Pilot incapacitation is another concern, as is the potential for sleep inertia in a pilot who is returning to the controls after a period of rest.
EASA’s Executive Director Patrick Ky suggested earlier this year that he would welcome a move toward the first model if it meets safety requirements.
“It makes sense to say, ‘OK, instead of having two in the cockpit, we can have one in the cockpit, the other one taking a rest,’ provided we’re implementing technical solutions which make sure that if the single one falls asleep or has any problem, there won’t be any unsafe conditions,” Ky said in a press briefing.
For airlines that have seen their revenues plummet during the pandemic, the draw of moving toward the second scenario is obvious: Save a lot of cash from payroll — captains’ pay typically starts at more than €100,000 in Europe — and pilot training costs and hotel bills. The industry is also facing a huge shortage of pilots, as a result of mandatory retirement age, flight training costs and training availability, among other factors.
But the possibility of cutting aircrew is ringing alarm bells with pilots.
“Commercial interest is being put before flight safety,” said European Cockpit Association President Otjan de Bruijn. “Even the most recent history has shown that putting these economical gains before anything else as a primary goal will have a detrimental influence on flight safety.”
Two Boeing 737 MAX crashes in late 2018 and early 2019 that killed 346 people “were a prime example of such behavior,” he added.
In both instances, a new anti-stall software feature malfunctioned during the crucial moments after takeoff, overwhelming pilots who couldn’t troubleshoot the problem before plunging to earth. The crashes also raised issues of how well the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration was overseeing safety at Boeing.
“It’s extremely important that EASA doesn’t make the same mistake,” de Bruijn continued. “These developments … should not be aimed at reducing the human capacity, but enhancing the flight safety by enhancing the capacity of the two pilots on board.”
Pilots aren’t just there to fly the plane, said de Bruijn. They also help cabin crew when passengers become drunk or unruly — or, as has been the case in the pandemic, rebel against new requirements like wearing a face mask throughout the flight.
“It is a huge burden, a huge extra workload, where I am very happy that I have a co-pilot in flight deck taking care of the flight while I’m helping the cabin crew trying to assess [the] situation talking to the passenger or passengers or even helping in the restraining an unruly passenger,” he said. “It’s just not possible to do this when you have only one pilot on board because he or she needs to stay in the flight deck.”
Pilot incapacitation — because of a medical emergency like a heart attack or food poisoning — is also a real risk and a relatively frequent occurrence, he said.
Airbus didn’t directly respond to a question about pilot incapacitation, other than to say that the planemaker would ensure that existing “unprecedented” levels of safety would be secured.
Getting on board
Whether passengers will be willing to use a single-pilot plane depends largely on cost, according to Ashley Nunes, a research fellow at Harvard Law School.
“For the average consumer, cash is king. If the price is low enough, you’re going to catch that flight,” he said. “The saga with the Boeing 737 MAX is a great example of this; in the aftermath of that particular event, large groups of consumers said, ‘We’re not going to fly that plane.’ And guess what? They’re flying it today.”
But reducing the number of pilots on board may not in fact drive down airlines’ costs and allow them to offer cheaper flights, Nunes warned: “There are numerous industries where you remove the human, your costs actually increase because of the amount of safety oversight that is required for the technology.”
The upheaval caused by the pandemic has also thrown a spanner in the works.
Cathay Pacific, one of the carriers working with Airbus on reduced crew operations, said the project has been put on hold as a result of COVID. The carrier’s spokesperson said that there is “no plan” to reduce the number of pilots.
“The appropriateness and effectiveness of any such rollout as well as what the overall cost/benefit analysis would look like in the new, post-COVID environment will ultimately depend on how the pandemic plays out,” the spokesperson said.
Still, Groenveld, the cabin crew representative, is worried that cash will trump safety.
“Flying is not cheap, a flight from Amsterdam to Malaga for €35 is impossible, yet the flights are being offered to the public,” she said. “Something has got to give and that something is flight safety and security.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.