A provision that would enable a study of single-pilot operation of cargo aircraft, strongly opposed by pilot groups, remains on the table as part of legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.
The provision challenges the concept of the two-pilot cockpit, a key component of the safety infrastructure that has made U.S. commercial aviation the safest transportation system in the history of the world, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents over 60,000 pilots at 34 airlines, and the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 pilots at American Airlines.
FAA reauthorization has been approved by the House and awaits a vote by the Senate. The House version includes the study provision.
“This type of legislation is irresponsible,” said Todd Insler, chairman of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. “It’s silly. It’s a flat-earth concept that a cockpit can be safe with one pilot.”
Insler said the necessity for two pilots is clear from a review of well-known emergency landings including Southwest Flight 1380, which landed in Philadelphia with one engine last month; US Airways Flight 1549, which landed on the Hudson River with no functioning engines in 2009 and United flight 232 which lost an engine and many flight controls and landed in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989.
Each case involved high levels of cooperation between the captain and the first officer, as well as other crew members and air traffic controllers, that was widely acknowledged afterwards.
“In any adverse situation, it’s a team effort,” Insler said. “We can do nothing with one person. It’s a team, it’s a crew, and not just pilots – it includes flight attendants in the back and air traffic control on the ground. When things go wrong, I need help.”
Tonight, ABC News is scheduled to telecast an interview with interview with Tammi Jo Shults and Darren Ellisor, captain and first officer on Southwest 1380. In the interview, Shults described the division of labor between the pilots once the engine was lost. “We kind of just split the cockpit and I did flying and some of the outside talking, and he took care of everything else,” she said.
The single cargo pilot study provision was introduced by U.S. Rep LaMar Smith, R.-Texas. He is chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which oversees the FAA, NASA, the Department of Energy and other agencies.
“This provision simply provides for research and development for what the possibilities would be for single pilot commercial cargo aircraft,” said Thea McDonald, spokeswoman for Smith’s committee.
“At this time, the chairman is advocating for R&D on this issue, not that all commercial cargo aircraft should be single-piloted immediately,” McDonald said. “It’s an important topic, particularly because vehicle autonomy is an important science and technology area in all modes of transportation.
Asked who would benefit from the provision, McDonald responded: “Chairman Smith wants to know what’s possible. It’s not a picking winners and losers situation in his mind. He wants to know whether or not, and if so, under what conditions, single-piloted commercial cargo aircraft would make sense.”
The fate of the provision is unclear.
“The provision of the bill passed un-amended in the House, and we intend to see it included in the bill all the way to enactment,” McDonald said. But a Congressional source who asked not to be named said Thursday, “If it was already in the Senate bill, I’d say it’s a done deal.
“But as of now, the provision is not in,” the source said. “So it’s an open question.”
In a prepared statement, ALPA President Tim Canoll said the association “is disappointed by a provision in the U.S. House reauthorization that would introduce a new safety risk by taking initial steps to promote single-operator commercial cargo aircraft.
“Air transportation is extremely safe in North America, due in no small part to the presence of two well-qualified, adequately trained, and properly rested pilots at the aircraft controls,” Canoll said. “We oppose the provision, Section 744, because it will undermine the safety of our airspace, and we urge Congress to reject it.”
Meanwhile, APA said it is “adamantly opposed to the language in Section 744.”
“Cargo and passenger carriers operate the same high-performance jet aircraft, share the same congested airspace, and fly over the same densely populated areas,” APA President Dan Carey said in a prepared statement. “There’s no logical reason to apply different standards to each.
“Given the threat posed by computer hacking and the accident rates for autonomous vehicles and military and civilian drones, it’s astonishing that policymakers would even consider this notion,” Carey said.