A recent proposal in Congress included a push for single-pilot cargo operations. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this is an indication that the pilot shortage is real, and companies are doing whatever they can to reduce their labor costs. It’s also an indication that portions of the industry are pushing ahead toward single-pilot and unmanned flights.
Getting rid of one pilot obviously will save tremendous money in training, employment, and recruiting costs. However, it doesn’t come without serious risks. First, cargo tends to be flown at night, when our bodies are programmed to sleep, so fatigue is necessarily going to be even more of an issue than it currently is. At least with a multi-crew cockpit, pilots can talk to one another and help each other stay awake, if not always alert. Second, most planes have several emergency scenarios in which it takes two people to safely fly and execute the appropriate checklist. Simply put, the plane becomes extremely difficult to control during certain flight control failures, hydraulic leaks, etc., and a single pilot trying to manage all of that while running a checklist from a book is nearly impossible. Third, some planes are not ergonomically designed for fewer than two pilots. This kind of takes a bit from my second example, but as an example, the Embraer Brasilia, a turboprop, was once a candidate for single-pilot operations, but the design for extending the landing gear manually didn’t allow it. The emergency gear extension can only be done from the right seat, not the left. In a case where fuel is low, or the weather is bad, the pilot can’t be trying to jockey between seats.
Single-pilot operations, to be perfectly honest, are probably going to occur at some point down the road. Experimenting with cargo is the logical choice because if there’s an accident, only one person is killed, and let’s be frank: If this is about money (and it is), nobody wants to lead the way into risking a cabin-load of passengers—who, by the way, probably won’t be comfortable with a single pilot for some time.
In order for this to even begin to work, certain conditions would have to be in place or assured. It should go without saying that the first one would be a first-rate autopilot, and maybe even multiple, independent autopilots that can handle more challenging workloads than what we have today on many planes. Computerized checklists that can be accessed from the control wheel via a thumb toggle would be a huge step. Category III ILS capability would be necessary for low-weather, which means some form of head-up display (HUD) or autoland. Fatigue, though, is still a major consideration, and there is no obvious way around this. Humans are not meant to live by sleeping during the day and working at night, and some of us struggle to make this work. How long would the work day be? How many legs a night? What airplanes would qualify? These are but a few of the questions that need to be addressed. Modifying and certifying the airplanes to allow for single-pilot operations would also require a significant monetary investment, one that all parties have to be convinced would equal or exceed the projected savings. Would it just be cheaper to pay the pilots more?
While I personally think that single-pilot cargo operations is a bad idea, I also believe that it’s further off than most people think, just because of the logistical challenges that lay ahead. For now, there is a movement to kill the current proposal in Congress. But, even if the movement to kill the bill is successful, the odds are that this is an idea that isn’t going to go away easily.