Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Pilots decry industry push for solo flying

MONTREAL — Pilots are speaking out against an aviation industry push toward having a sole crew member in the cockpit.
 A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., Monday, May 13, 2019.   Pilots are speaking out against an aviation industry push toward a sole crew member in the cockpit. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

MONTREAL — Pilots are speaking out against an aviation industry push toward having a sole crew member in the cockpit.

At a Thursday news conference in Montreal, leaders of three of the world's largest pilot unions representing more than 150,000 workers said a proposal to Europe's aviation regulator aims to boost airline profits at the expense of safety.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency is mulling a pitch by plane makers Airbus and Dassault Aviation for some aircraft to be crewed by just one pilot for part of the flight — though not during takeoff and landing — by 2027. Currently, two pilots are required at the flight deck throughout the trip.

The proposal would create an "unacceptable" safety risk for passengers, said Jack Netskar, president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, which includes some 6,200 Canadians.

"There is no replacement for the skills and experience of at least two pilots at the controls of the flight deck at all times," he said.

Some manufacturers have framed single-person flying as a solution to labour shortages and pilot fatigue, said European Cockpit Association president Otjan de Bruijn, calling the characterization "misleading and inaccurate."

"It's a gamble with safety," he said.

The proposal could see only one pilot at the throttle during "less challenging phases" of a flight, so typically in cruise rather than at takeoff and landing, while the other pilot or pilots rest in the back, said Janet Northcote, spokeswoman for the European aviation agency. A pair would swap places halfway through the trip, but both pilots would be in the cockpit for the first and last 45 minutes or so.

In theory, the change could mean that longer routes which previously demanded three or four pilots on an in-flight rotation could make do with just two.

The concept — still years away from potential implementation — is being investigated more intensely by the agency, said Northcote.

So-called single-pilot operations, when just one pilot is on board from start to finish, are also undergoing "some consideration" — but only for freighters, she said.

Union leaders said they aim to counter a lobbying campaign by industry players targeting regulators around the world, as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization.

The Montreal-based United Nations agency's governing body and air navigation commission were slated to weigh the topic further after two working papers were submitted last year, but no resolutions have been adopted, said spokesman Anthony Philbin.

Pilot unions say France-based plane producer Airbus is leading the drive toward "reduced-crew operations," while North American airlines have been reluctant to jump on board.

"It's a sales pitch," said Netskar. "There's probably going to be airlines out there that find this viable —financially viable — and not considering the flight safety risk you're entering into."

Airbus and Dassault did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Boeing said it has "participated in industry discussions" but safety remains its priority, with any new technology serving to strengthen it.

“Part of the reason the aviation system is as safe as it is today is because of what pilots do," the company said in an emailed statement.

Transport Canada is aware the single-pilot concept was being studied by the EU regulator, and the department will "continue to monitor developments," according to spokesman Hicham Ayoun said.

The prospect of fewer pilots has risen along with advances in avionics technology, as well as artificial intelligence.

"As we advance AI and machine robotics, there is a clear path to bring some of that technology into the cockpit. It is the evolution of technology in aircraft that’s driving the manufacturers to consider this," said John Gradek, a lecturer at McGill University's aviation management program.

Machine learning and AI have already made inroads in areas ranging from flight path programming to dynamic pricing and parts production. Airbus is researching cockpit enhancements to allow single-pilot operations. Germany-based Lufthansa is deploying AI to forecast wind patterns. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue are all investing in the buzzy technology, while Alaskan Airlines implemented an AI-fuelled program to forge more efficient flight paths during a six-month trial period.

Nonetheless, Air Line Pilots Association International president Jason Ambrosi said abandoning two-pilot flying at all times "recklessly dismisses" lessons that airlines have learned the hard way, calling the notion "insane."

Bird strikes, volcanic ash encounters and, in February, an incident where two planes narrowly avoided collision at the Austin airport in Texas after "the pilot saw the danger" have all showcased the importance of keeping two pilots at the controls, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2023.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press