Flights without co-pilots? Why this could be bad news for passengers

Last week, Cathay Pacific and Airbus were reported to be working together to enable long-haul flights on the A350 to operate with a “reduced crew,” meaning that a single pilot will be the only person in the flight deck during the cruise.

Apart from the obvious question of “Who’s going to fly the aircraft when the solo pilot needs to visit the bathroom?”, there are many other factors that need to be taken into consideration before deciding if this really is a good idea.

A disclaimer

Before I wade into this debate, I think it’s only fair that I set out my stall. I’ve been an airline pilot for 16 years, flying the A320 around Europe for the first 10 years of my career and then 787 Dreamliner around the world for the past six years.

I spent my teenage years dreaming of becoming an airline pilot and then spent nearly $110,000 on flight training to achieve my dream. I do have a science degree, but aviation is all I’ve done since I left university. My job flying the 787 keeps a roof over my family’s head and puts shoes on my children’s feet.

Related: From classroom to cockpit: What cadets can expect when becoming an airline pilot

As a result, I clearly have a vested interest in any proposal for airlines to start flying around with fewer pilots. Not only will it ultimately lead to fewer jobs and more redundancies for those of us already flying aircraft, but it will hit those most recently qualified the hardest. The pilot industry tends to operate a “last in, first out” system when it comes to redundancies so it will be the newest pilots, often with training debts of around $170,000, who will suffer most. It will also limit the opportunities for young people interested in becoming a pilot to do so.

I fully accept that technology evolves and automation is slowly improving. The job of the flight engineer has all but disappeared from commercial aviation, with their role of monitoring the analogue system dials being digitised and automated by flight computers. Most, if not all, jobs performed by humans will ultimately come under threat from a computer that can do the job “better.”

However, how do we define “better” and, more to the point, what are we as human beings willing to accept being done by a computer? Having our new car assembled in a factory? Sure. Having a valve in our heart replaced? Not for me, thanks.

The bigger the threat to our personal safety, the more we want to have a fellow human performing the actions. We all have daily struggles with technology. Our phones won’t send messages, the satellite TV stops working and our laptops give us the “green screen of death.” How many set a “backup” alarm, just in case the original one on your phone doesn’t work when you have to be at work on time for an important meeting?

In the 16 years I’ve been flying, I’ve had very few things go wrong. However, every single flight that I have completed, I saw the benefits of having two — and sometimes three — well-rested pilots at the controls. All critical aircraft systems have backups. For the most important systems, there is a backup for the backup. Why not use the same philosophy for the pilots themselves?

Related: How pilots stay alert on ultra-long-range flights

This is why, for you as a passenger, it’s imperative that airliners continue to have a full complement of pilots, especially for long-haul flights.

How does it work at the moment?

A modern airliner requires a minimum of two pilots to operate legally, and the length of the maximum duty period (the time from when we report for duty to the engines being shut down) depends on what time the duty starts and how many sectors we are planning to fly. In short, the more unsociable the start time and the more sectors, the shorter the maximum duty period. For example, if we report for duty at 3 a.m., we would be legally allowed to fly for 11 hours, landing at 2 p.m. that afternoon.

In practice, two-crew flights are normally limited to those with a flight time of fewer than nine hours. For anything longer, one (and sometimes two) extra pilot(s) is added to the crew to act as a Relief Pilot(s).

For takeoff and landing, the Relief Pilot will sit on the jump seat in the flight deck and act as an extra pair of eyes and ears to assist the flying pilots. If they notice a mistake or anything untoward, it is their responsibility to bring it to the attention of the flying pilots and ensure that corrective action is taken. They are very much part of the operating crew, bringing an extra level of safety to the operation.

Related: What it’s like inside your plane’s hidden ‘crew rest,’ where pilots and flight attendants sleep

Once safely established in the climb, the Relief Pilot will head back to the rest facilities, either located behind the flight deck or at the back of the aircraft. The crew will then take it in turns to have their time in the rest facilities, with the aim being for the flying pilots to be as fresh as possible for the approach and landing.

In these scenarios, the maximum duty period can be extended up to 18 hours, irrespective of the start time. However, despite the time spent resting, it’s not perfect.

Firstly, it’s difficult to sleep when your body and mind don’t want to. Anyone who has been wide awake at 3 a.m. suffering from the effects of jetlag will know this feeling well.

Secondly, despite being flat and relatively comfortable, the crew rest facilities are nothing like your bed at home. Noise from the meal service and call-bells in the cabin make dropping off to sleep difficult. Then, just as you drift off, a bout of turbulence jolts you awake again. It’s quite common to spend three hours on your break and get no sleep whatsoever.

Returning to the flight deck at the end of your break, you’re meant to be refreshed, but the reality is often very different. We all know that the more tired we are, the more likely we are to make mistakes. As a result, when it comes to landing the aircraft at the end of a 15-hour flight, having the extra pilot sat in the jump seat is invaluable to spotting those errors and stopping them from developing into anything more serious.

Flights without co-pilots? Why this could be bad news for passengers

What are the new proposals?

In conjunction with Airbus, Cathay Pacific is proposing that longer flights that would normally operate with three or four pilots instead operate with just two. This would leave one pilot in the flight deck on their own during the cruise whilst the other pilot goes on their break. This would require constant monitoring of the solo pilot’s alertness and vital signs by onboard systems.

According to the plans, if there was a problem with the flight or the operating pilot was incapacitated, the resting pilot could return to the flight deck within minutes.

According to former EASA official Filippo Tomasello, the savings to be made in terms of reduced staff costs and hotel accommodation bills would not be lost on airlines. He added that, “If EASA certifies this solution, airlines will use it.”

Let’s look at some of the issues with it.

The proposals state that in an emergency, the resting pilot could be summoned back to the flight deck in a matter of minutes. Whilst this is true, it is not quite as simple as it’s made out to be.

Have you ever woken up from a sleep and had no idea where you were? Did it take you a good few minutes for your brain to kick into gear and be able to perform a simple task such as putting some clothes on? If so, you’ve experienced sleep inertia.

According to Lynn Marie Trotti from the Emory Sleep Center and Department of Neurology, sleep inertia “refers to the transitional state between sleep and wake, marked by impaired performance, reduced vigilance, and a desire to return to sleep.”

Trotti continues that it has “potentially dangerous ramifications, e.g., in health care workers or military personnel who are woken abruptly in the night and required to make cognitively-taxing decisions.”

Indeed, a 2011 paper published by Horne & Moseley found that “sudden early-morning awakening impairs immediate tactical planning in a changing ‘emergency’ scenario,” in a study carried out on young, healthy, well-trained military officers. This exact scenario manifested itself over the Atlantic in 2011.

Shortly after waking up from a nap, the co-pilot of a Boeing 767 flying overnight from Toronto to Zurich, mistook the planet Venus for another aircraft. “Under the effects of significant sleep inertia, the first officer perceived the oncoming aircraft as being on a collision course and began a descent to avoid it,” Canada’s Transportation Safety Board stated.

The sudden change to the aircraft’s flight path resulted in injuries to 14 passengers and two crew, seven of whom required hospital treatment.

As a result, simply calling the other pilot from their rest is not an effective way to deal with a rapidly changing emergency situation.

Whilst the autopilot does the “dog work” of following the route and maintaining altitude, it is only as good as the information that it is fed — by the pilots. When people tell me that “aircraft fly themselves these days,” in return I ask them when writing an email in their own job, who is doing the work? The computer or themselves? They normally reassess their thoughts on the role of a pilot after this.

Related: What happens when pilots have to fly without an autopilot?

If we engage the autopilot and tell it to fly the aircraft west at 5,000 feet, it will do so perfectly — until it hits a mountain. As a result, we have to make sure that the information that we feed into the aircraft computers is correct and the best way to do this is with two pilots. Even during the cruise, there are still several tasks we must complete which require two pilots, for example when crossing the Atlantic.

When flying over the ocean, there is no ATC coverage. As a result, to ensure that we remain safely separated from other aircraft, we must comply with a route and speed clearance issued to us by ATC before we start the crossing. The implications of deviating from this clearance and into the path of another aircraft are potentially catastrophic, so airlines have set procedures for ensuring that this does not happen.

One pilot checks the clearance against the flight computers and makes any required changes. The other pilot then checks these changes in the computer against the clearance. Then, as the last chance to pick up any errors, both pilots check both the computer and clearance together. By working together, we massively reduce the chances of an error occurring.

If carried out by a single pilot fighting sleep at 3 a.m., the chances of making errors and then these mistakes not being noticed would increase significantly.

It’s often said that the skills of a modern airline pilot are not so much the old-fashioned traits of “stick and rudder” handling but in decision making. When things go wrong at 43,000 feet over the ocean in the middle of the night, you don’t often get a second chance to rectify a poor decision. As result, making the right decision the first time is key and the best way to do this is to bounce your ideas off someone else.

It is why businesses and organizations set up working groups and teams to ensure that they get the best results from their staff. Very rarely do individuals make snap decisions on their own, particularly when it comes to safety.

Even in the cruise, we are continuously making decisions — a good example is avoiding severe weather.

Thunderstorms are incredible feats of Mother Nature, bringing lightning, hail and severe turbulence. They can grow upwards of 50,000 feet — well above the altitudes airliners are capable of achieving — so it is our responsibility to ensure that the aircraft stays well clear of them.

Most aircraft have a weather radar that shows the current situation with the weather up to 160 miles ahead, or around 20 minutes flying time. However, these weather systems and storms change rapidly and what the radar system is unable to do is predict what the situation will be by the time we actually reach the storm. By that time, a poor decision could have us in serious trouble. The only way to make a good decision is with our theoretical knowledge and experience.

When planning to avoid a storm, we will discuss the situation between ourselves, considering elements such as wind direction and speed, aircraft performance and nearby terrain. When we are both happy with the plan to avoid the storm, we will then put it into action. However, the value of experience in these situations can not be understated.

A captain with 15,000 hours of flying experience will be able to assess the situation far better than a co-pilot with just 100 hours of long-haul experience. Between them, they will be able to come up with a safe avoidance plan. If the weather scenario was to occur with the inexperienced co-pilot on their own in the flight deck, the decision-making may not be as effective.

Bottom line

Technology is changing by the day, with more and more elements of our daily lives becoming automated. In the aviation industry, technology brings many benefits to passengers, too. Many aircraft are now fitted with WiFi, enabling people to remain connected even as they are thousands of feet above deserts and oceans.

However, there has to be a limit on what the flying public is happy to accept when it comes to safety. Computer-operated systems are great — until they malfunction. At this point, there is no one better placed to deal with the subsequent mess than a rested, alert, well-trained human.

Featured photo by Rathke/Getty Images.