Single-pilot passenger planes could soon take to the skies, says Boeing

by | Dec 25, 2018 | blog | 0 comments

Plane maker Boeing is actively working on technology that would remove the need for two pilots in the cockpits of its passenger jets.

Existing European aviation rules state that passenger planes with more than 19 seats must have a minimum of two pilots in the cockpit.

But Steve Nordlund, a vice president at Boeing, said autonomous technology that would allow for a reduction in on-board crew was being developed at a “good speed”.

He said Boeing “believes in autonomous flight and self-piloted aircraft” and the firm’s commercial aircraft division was “working on those technologies today”.

“I don’t think you’ll see a pilotless aircraft of a 737 in the near future,” he told The Independent.

“But what you may see is more automation and aiding in the cockpit, maybe a change in the crew number up in the cockpit.”

He suggested cargo jets could be the first to trial the technology but that it made “business sense” to pursue a reduction in the number of on-board crew on passenger planes, too.

“A combination of safety, economics and technology all have to converge, and I think we are starting to see that.”

It would also address a chronic shortage of pilots which analysts have said could reach more than 200,000 over the next decade.

But while planes have become increasingly automated in recent decades, with autopilot routinely used throughout all phases of a flight, the prospect of fewer crew members may still prove to be a hard sell – both to passengers and regulators.

After a Germanwings pilot flew an A320 plane into the French Alps in March 2015, killing all 150 people on board, Europe’s aviation safety authority, EASA, imposed a rule that two crew members should be in the cockpit at all times. It meant that if a pilot needed to step out of the cockpit, to use the toilet for example, a member of the cabin crew had to step in.

EASA relaxed the requirement last year, saying it was up to airlines to ensure their aircraft were safe.

Sully Sullenberger, the retired US Airways pilot who saved the lives of 155 people when he landed an A320 on New York’s Hudson River after both engines suffered a bird strike, has previously spoken out against moves towards single-pilot aircraft. 

After the US Federal Aviation Administration asked Congress for money to research single-pilot commercial airliners, he said: “Having only one pilot in any commercial aircraft flies in the face of evidence and logic.

“Every safety protocol we have is predicated on having two pilots work seamlessly together as an expert team cross-checking and backing each other up.”

Mr Nordlund, who heads the firm’s innovation arm, Boeing NeXt, insisted single-pilot crews would only be deployed if there was appetite for it from airlines. 

He said developments would be driven by the “comfort levels of the consumer”, suggesting passenger concerns about safety – whether well-founded or not – could delay the roll-out of autonomous technology.

But he added: “When it is cargo, that aspect is taken out of the equation.”

Plane maker Boeing is actively working on technology that would remove the need for two pilots in the cockpits of its passenger jets.

Existing European aviation rules state that passenger planes with more than 19 seats must have a minimum of two pilots in the cockpit.

But Steve Nordlund, a vice president at Boeing, said autonomous technology that would allow for a reduction in on-board crew was being developed at a “good speed”.

He said Boeing “believes in autonomous flight and self-piloted aircraft” and the firm’s commercial aircraft division was “working on those technologies today”.

“I don’t think you’ll see a pilotless aircraft of a 737 in the near future,” he told The Independent.

“But what you may see is more automation and aiding in the cockpit, maybe a change in the crew number up in the cockpit.”

He suggested cargo jets could be the first to trial the technology but that it made “business sense” to pursue a reduction in the number of on-board crew on passenger planes, too.

“A combination of safety, economics and technology all have to converge, and I think we are starting to see that.”

It would also address a chronic shortage of pilots which analysts have said could reach more than 200,000 over the next decade.

But while planes have become increasingly automated in recent decades, with autopilot routinely used throughout all phases of a flight, the prospect of fewer crew members may still prove to be a hard sell – both to passengers and regulators.

After a Germanwings pilot flew an A320 plane into the French Alps in March 2015, killing all 150 people on board, Europe’s aviation safety authority, EASA, imposed a rule that two crew members should be in the cockpit at all times. It meant that if a pilot needed to step out of the cockpit, to use the toilet for example, a member of the cabin crew had to step in.

EASA relaxed the requirement last year, saying it was up to airlines to ensure their aircraft were safe.

Sully Sullenberger, the retired US Airways pilot who saved the lives of 155 people when he landed an A320 on New York’s Hudson River after both engines suffered a bird strike, has previously spoken out against moves towards single-pilot aircraft. 

After the US Federal Aviation Administration asked Congress for money to research single-pilot commercial airliners, he said: “Having only one pilot in any commercial aircraft flies in the face of evidence and logic.

“Every safety protocol we have is predicated on having two pilots work seamlessly together as an expert team cross-checking and backing each other up.”

Mr Nordlund, who heads the firm’s innovation arm, Boeing NeXt, insisted single-pilot crews would only be deployed if there was appetite for it from airlines. 

He said developments would be driven by the “comfort levels of the consumer”, suggesting passenger concerns about safety – whether well-founded or not – could delay the roll-out of autonomous technology.

But he added: “When it is cargo, that aspect is taken out of the equation.”