By Kathryn B. Creedy
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) published a White Paper outlining its opposition to single-pilot operations (SPOs) but rather than making a case against SPOs the document reads more like a laundry list of challenges to be overcome.
The Dangers of Single-Pilot Operations is right that SPOs is not a risk worth taking today. But it is extremely weak in arguing for a ban for the future.
The biggest problem with the white paper is the fact its arguments are largely for the here and now and assumes technology and the industry will not advance or, if it does, it would risk safety. The fact of the matter is, no one – manufacturers and regulators included – will let SPOs happen without first proving it is an equivalent level of safety.
This premature White Paper assumes that will not be the case and it is that assumption that is insulting to all the people working in the industry that have given us the safety record we have today.
The document comes as the pilot shortage is stunting airline growth forcing many small operators to ignore new business opportunities such as taking on new customers or expanding service to communities dropped from the air transportation system for lack of pilots. SPOs would be part of a multi-faceted solution especially since small cargo operators are already doing SPOs with a laudable safety record. The shortage and advancing technology conspire to make SPOs more likely especially in cargo operations.
ALPA points out SPOs are allowed in Part 135 operations, but operators schedule two pilots for such flights citing increased safety. But, again, this is more reflective of the aircraft state of the art. It is also related to requirements for pilots to drill holes in the sky to build time to meet a ridiculous hourly metric foisted on the industry by ALPA wishing to cause a pilot shortage. It has nothing to do with what can be accomplished in the future.
ALPA speaks of the dangers of increased pilot workload and points to numerous NASA studies showing increased pilot error accompanies increased workload. But this assumes the current technology will stand still and not address that.
If ALPA hopes to stall such advancements, it is too late. That ship has sailed. Engineers are already imagining and preparing for that future driven, in part, by the pilot shortage and that is why the ALPA imposed pilot shortage has backfired on the profession. Manufacturers will not stop now because all have identified the pilot shortage as a serious issue. They have a high bar to reach but they know that.
ALPA pushes the importance of non-verbal communications between pilot and first officer while ignoring the fact that standardized procedures and check lists don’t accept non-verbal cues as appropriate. That is why communications come with a command and a verbal response ensuring the pilot understands and is executing properly. More importantly saying non-verbal communications is a safety issue is like saying aircraft operations are unsafe because air traffic controllers and pilots do not share non-verbal cues.
ALPA also points to rapid and dynamic decision making during anomalous events. It addresses the prospect of artificial intelligence, calling it the biggest technological hurdle that is, at least, two decades away. No one argues with that.
But it pulls out the tired Miracle on the Hudson, saying a machine could not have done what those two pilots did. The problem with that argument is it erroneously assumes that all pilots could have pulled off landing on the Hudson when most pilots suggested otherwise at the time. Why else would Sullenberger and Skiles be put on the exalted platform they enjoy now?
Engineers already working on solutions
Does ALPA assume the engineers are not thinking of the issues it raises? Full automation must account for these harrowing dynamic situations. That is the challenge to be overcome.
OEMs are quick to remind us that autonomous systems were not created as a convenience tool – allowing humans to work on other things – they were installed as safety tools trying to engineer out the leading cause of accidents — pilot error — which ALPA does not address. They also point out it is hard to make an economic case for a convenience tool while making the case for a new automated safety feature is really the only reason to put a new system on board. If it doesn’t improve safety – they are not going to do it. Simple as that.
With many accidents associated with automation, there is still much to be done to close the loop ensuring automation is as safe as intended. But that is down to pilot training more than technology.
ALPA again illustrates its arrogance suggesting the current level of aviation safety is exclusively owing to pilots. No true safety expert would agree. In fact, ALPA has been widely criticized for making this statement. Flight Safety Foundation rightly put the credit where it is due.
“Today’s outstanding safety record in commercial aviation is largely the result of a wide variety of diligent efforts by thousands of aviation professionals around the world,” it wrote, “who design increasingly reliable aircraft, engines, and parts; maintain, repair and overhaul aircraft; regulate and enforce performance-based safety rules; investigate accidents and incidents; manage air traffic; develop sophisticated avionics and navigational aids; operate airports; and fly sophisticated aircraft in increasingly complex environments. It is not the result of any one factor.”
I don’t even think ALPA would agree that it is the sole reason for improving safety in the first place, if it really thought about it, because it seems to contradict its support of critical safety programs like ASAP, FOQA, LOSA. This, at a time, when data analytics has proven its role in reducing the accident rate. That goal was set in the mid ‘90s and was successfully achieved within the 10-year mandate of the goal. The increasing use of data has only made the industry safer in the intervening years. Furthermore, inflight monitoring systems broadcasting via data links will only improve the safety of the industry more.
ALPA makes a strong argument for needing an extra pilot to deal with a pilot incapacitation but notes the “chances of a pilot becoming incapacitated or impaired during flight are statistically low.” The volume of flights shows just how rare it is but that does, says ALPA, translate into multiple incidents each year.”
The White Paper cited FAA data used to study the reduction of flight crew from three to two. The 1993 AC 25-1583-1 reported between 1980 and 1989, 262 incapacitation incidents occurred in single-pilot Part 91 flights whiUch caused 180 fatalities; 32 in single-pilot Part 135 flights resulting in 32 fatalities and 51 in Part 121 operations with no fatalities thanks to the second pilot. It also cited an Australian safety board study showing 32 such incidents between 2010 and 2015, 75% of which were in high-capacity air transport operations, again with minimal disruption to the flight and no fatalities.
This could be addressed by using the same technology that allowed NASA to monitor astronauts’ vital signs way back in the 1960s despite the fact ALPA says it will take “significant advances in technology.” Not so. Qantas is now using wearable technology to assess pilots and crew for its proposed 19-hour flights. But such daily monitoring would take enormous investment.
However, ALPA is likely to oppose this idea, likely on privacy grounds as was done in opposing cameras on the flight deck. But that makes it a privacy issue. Such surveillance is definitely a safety issue in the minds of the National Transportation Safety Board, one of the world’s foremost arbiters of safety, which continues to seek such cameras saying the resulting information would improve safety. But ALPA remains opposed.
Indeed, most people would object to their employer doing real-time health monitoring on the job just as they did when employers monitored computer usage.
Airbus has already accounted for inflight emergencies in its SPO proposals. It would include ground-based pilots monitoring multiple flights. In the event of an emergency, like controllers, these pilots would offload all other work to others and focus 100% on the problematic flight. Still, it remains unproven and that is a task for the industry.
ALPA’s Most Effective Argument
ALPA rightly points out the economic argument for replacing pilots doesn’t really hold water. While airline analysts suggest billion-dollar cost-savings by eliminating human pilots, such statistics don’t tell the whole story. For instance, as ALPA points out, these estimates do not account for the cost of setting up such ground-based systems. More importantly for me, they don’t account for the cost of further automation needed on the flight deck to address increased workload or the changes to training; the very reasons SPOs are so far out in the future.
ALPA also makes the argument FAA should be focusing its limited resources on modernizing the NAS, funding electric and supersonic propulsion or more fuel-efficient wing technology than “wasting” money funding research for SPOs. This stems from a failed provision that stalled the passage of the last FAA bill which called for a study of SPO operations. First, the billions invested in NAS modernization is continuing to happen as is research on all three futuristic technologies.
In addition, in order to get SPOs certified, such studies will be necessary. All ALPA accomplished is delaying government studies. But private industry is already doing the work necessary to ensure SPOs can be done safely. Remember the burden is always on them to prove what they are doing is safe.
ALPA makes the argument we are already over relying on automation and safety experts agree driving training changes emphasizing such things as basic flying skills. However, it said automation may mask problems in aircraft health and monitoring at a time when new technology is being used right now to address that and improving safety to boot.
The union then turns around and says reliance on automation is at fault for pilots having a hard time transitioning from autopilot to real flying. But that argument doesn’t fly because over-reliance on automation is a pilot problem, not an automation problem as recognized by safety and training experts the world. And it is already being addressed by changing training to address the problems already found with automation.
As for public acceptance, ALPA polled the public and found it is rightly uncomfortable with SPOs. Hell, the public also opposes automated vehicles (AVs) because the technology is not ready for prime time. More importantly, it assumes uninformed public opinion should trump science. The fact is, if no pilots meant cheaper tickets, polling results would be very different.
Second, it assumes technology will remain static and disregards the advancements in other transport arenas such as cars, drones and urban mobility. Any acceptance of radical technology happens first on the ground, not in the air. But once it has gained widespread acceptance it could inevitably include SPOs and even completely automated flight decks. It is only a matter of time and technology. That’s why incorporating what we find with drones and AVs is so important.
Most agree the loss of the pilot profession would be extremely sad, but engineers are already imagining that future and much of the reason relates to the union-caused pilot shortage.
If the economic argument cited above is a strong argument so too is the fact we don’t know what we don’t know. Can we automate the flight deck enough to accommodate single – or even no-pilot – operations?
Remember what the question is. We don’t need proof that two pilots are safer which is what this White Paper sets out to do. We need proof that SPOs are as safe or safer and that is the challenge for the industry and regulators.
We don’t know but it is clear, as technology advances, we’ll find out and it is also why SPOs are so far away. And we may find that we cannot safely do without pilots.
So ALPA has given us all the reasons why SPOs can’t be done and it is am impressive list. But that list pales in comparison with what the technology development underway to enable SPOs to happen. The question then becomes whether or not it can be done safely and economically.
Keywords: air cargo, pilots, regional air cargo carriers, RACCA, automation, single-pilot operations, airlines, aircraft, passengers