Reduced Crew Flights – Would Safety Be Compromised?

Over the years of aviation’s development, we’ve seen massive leaps in automation of various things, from the introduction of fly-by-wire to enhanced navigation and piloting aids. But how much automation is too much? At the recent IATA Wings of Change Europe conference, industry experts discussed reduced crew operations, how it would work and whether it would compromise safety.

Reduced crew flight
Could reduced crew flights actually make long haul safer? Photo: Pixabay

How and when could reduced crew operations work?

Clearly, we are some way away from having a one pilot aircraft, particularly on passenger flights. However, that doesn’t mean that reducing the time the crew are on the flight deck is not being considered in some ways.

At the IATA conference, Cathay Pacific’s Director of Flight Operations, Chris Kempis, hit the nail on the head when he said,

“The idea of reduced crew would have to come in an environment that was perfect for it. It would have to be in a way that ensured no compromise on safety.”

A no compromise attitude is precisely what’s needed. Airlines, regulators and passengers alike would all agree on that point. However, the life of a pilot has changed greatly over recent decades, and today’s highly automated cockpit has altered what’s expected in their day to day operations. Kempis continued,

“The other side of automation is that it is so reliable, it does so much of the routine work on a day to day basis that, say for example in the cruise of the flight, you look at two pilots sitting on the flight deck in the middle of the night, their level of workload and level of arousal is actually quite low. This is not only because of autopilot but because a lot of things like flight plans and paperwork processes have been removed. Pilots are basically becoming monitors and not physical actors.”

Tanja Harter, Technical Affairs Director, ECA, talked to Patrick Ky, Executive Director, EASA and Chris Kempis, Director of Flight Operations, Cathay Pacific, along with Michael Romanowski, Aircraft Certification Service Policy & Innovation Division Director, FAA and Yannick Malinge, Head of Product Safety, Airbus. Photo: IATA

Of course, that’s not to say that pilots can’t do everything manually if required; of course they can. It’s just that, for a lot of the time, they don’t need to. This means that, sometimes for a really, really long time, pilots are just watching, with very little to keep their minds active. Kempis made a suggestion,

“If we were to take one of the pilots out for a short period of time in a controlled environment, then the arousal level of the remaining pilot is slightly increased. Not only does that mean the remaining pilot is in a better position to carry out duties with more attention, but the other pilot is able to take time out and rest properly.

“Some airlines do allow, while in the cruise period, for pilots to actually nap in their seat while the other pilot flies. Rather than having a process like that being approved, it could well be better to have one pilot who is properly trained in a controlled environment with the right equipment, and allowing the other pilot to properly rest and come back refreshed.”

Cathay pilot
Could letting one pilot get some proper rest actually improve safety overall? Photo: Cathay

The regulators would never allow it

Or would they? Also present in the discussion was Patrick Ky, Executive Director, EASA, the regulator that looks after European airspace. His take on the idea was surprisingly optimistic. He said,

“We do see that … reduced crew operations could be used to actually increase the level of safety. The level of vigilance of even a two person crew during the cruise phase may not be as good as if one is able to rest fully. We could actually look at it from the perspective of, how do we enable crew to increase the level of safety by increasing the level of awareness and vigilance of the crew, including enabling the crew to take some rest during the cruise.”

So, despite perceptions, reducing the time crew are on the flight deck could actually improve flight safety. At least, in theory, it could.

What are the barriers to reduced crew flights?

It’s quite an ‘out there’ idea, having only one pilot on the flight deck for a portion of the flight. Overcoming the opinions of passengers could be quite a stretch.

However, technology moves at such a pace, and people are so accustomed to change, it’s likely that acceptance from the passenger side wouldn’t take too long. After all, although we’re used to a two-pilot operation of aircraft today, we’ve gone through the removal of flight engineers, navigators, radio operators, etc., so this is just another step in the evolution of flight. It would be a challenge, but something which the flying public would probably overcome given time.

SAS DC8 flght deck
It wasn’t that long ago that the flight crew would have been three or even four people. Photo: SAS

The problem comes when the remaining pilot has a problem. Kempis gave the example of the operating pilot needing a bathroom break. Waking the second pilot would defeat the object of the exercise, but surely the flight deck cannot be left unattended, even just for a minute? Could a remote monitoring system be put in place? These are the questions that need to be answered.

Reduced crew operations make a lot of sense in terms of keeping pilots alert and well, but there is a lot of work to be done and many more questions to be answered before we’re likely to see this type of thing being put into practice.

What do you think? Should one pilot be allowed to rest properly during the cruise phase of a long haul flight, or should there be two on the flight deck at all times? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.