A co-pilot on a Swiss plane: would we travel with only one pilot on board?
Jean Claude RaemyEditor Economics
The shortage of pilots is an increasing problem for many airlines. You can meet the shortage of personnel with more training or higher wages. Or by lobbying behind the scenes for a rule change in the cockpit. Accordingly, in the future, wide-bodied aircraft should also be steered at least temporarily or even entirely by just one pilot.
Both in Europe and in the USA there are already advances in this direction. In the USA, a corresponding amendment to the law is already before Congress. However, the first step is about cargo flights. In Europe, the aviation safety authority Easa has meanwhile launched a feasibility study that should clarify by mid-2024 whether one pilot in the cockpit is sufficient.
Bazl supports the project
When asked by Blick, Christian Schubert, spokesman for the Federal Office for Civil Aviation (Balz), explained: “Although the Baal is not directly involved in the development of the new regulation, we support this project.” The efforts for a concept in which the cockpit crew is reduced to one pilot on long flights and in flight phases with low workload are well advanced. Should Easa change the rules, Switzerland will automatically adopt them on the basis of the bilateral air transport agreement with the EU.
Aircraft that can be flown by a single pilot are widespread. The “single pilot operation” (SPO) is mainly used for helicopters and small jets. Commercially operated large aircraft, on the other hand, are certified for operation with two pilots.
So that fewer pilots will be necessary in the future, not only technological improvements are needed. The decision-making and management processes, especially in emergency situations, have to be rethought. Only then could large jets be certified for reduced pilot operations.
Pilots doubt the sense of the project
According to Easa, this could become a reality as early as this decade, even as early as 2027. The airline stakeholders and the umbrella organizations of the trade unions are involved in the process, assures Schubert.
In Switzerland, however, the pilots are not involved. At least the ECA pilots’ association can have a say at the European level.
However, the opinion of the pilots is clear: “The schedule is too hasty and the project itself is questionable,” explains Thomas Steffen, spokesman for the Swiss pilots’ association Aeropers. From his point of view, it’s all about saving money and staff. “If you wanted to increase flight safety, you would have to better support the pilots in their work and not replace them.”
Big security concerns
On the one hand, he has safety concerns on the technical side. An airplane should be able to land safely on its own if the pilot fails. “Currently, not even cars can reliably drive themselves,” says Steffen. Today, “automatic landings” are already taking place when visibility is very poor. Only the setting up is automatic. The pilots have to monitor the process carefully and, for example, extend landing flaps and landing gear manually. And if the weather conditions are very demanding, you have to land entirely by hand anyway.
What about a remote control from the ground? “From our point of view, this is not an option because there is a risk of abuse,” explains Steffen. If it is possible to take control of a passenger aircraft from the ground, then there is a risk that unauthorized persons will hijack an aircraft. “I wouldn’t get on such a plane,” says Steffen.
Even when technical barriers are overcome, there is still the psychological component. Would passengers feel safe on an airplane with only one pilot flying?
This could well be the case for short trips. In addition, there is no absolute safety even with two pilots on board. This was shown by the case of Germanwings in 2015, in which the co-pilot locked the pilot out after using the toilet and intentionally caused the plane to crash.