Aviation's Safeguard: Two Pilots Always on the Flight Deck

Part 9: ALPA Looks to the Future

By Corey Kuhn, Contributing Writer

Editor’s note: Exposing the dangers of reduced-crew operations has been and will continue to be an ALPA priority. In this nine-part series, Air Line Pilot will educate, inform, and advocate support for maintaining the most vital aircraft safety feature: two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested professional pilots on the flight deck. Catch up with Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, and Part 8.

“Efforts to reduce flight crew complement aren’t going to go away, and ALPA is on the front lines ensuring that policy makers and regulators are properly informed about what is necessary to maintain North America’s extraordinary airline safety record.” —Capt. Russ Sklenka, ALPA’s Reduced Crew Operations Committee Chair

In each issue this year, Air Line Pilot has broken down the various aspects and issues behind continuing attempts to promote reduced-crew, single-pilot, or remotely piloted operations in the airline industry.

To ensure that opposing any attempt to reduce the number of qualified pilots on the flight deck remains a top priority for ALPA into the future, in October the Association’s Board of Directors moved to convert and codify the President’s Committee on Reduced Crew Operations (PCRCO) to a continuing committee. While the PCRCO was renamed the Reduced Crew Operations Committee (RCOC), the committee’s mission remains the same.

Under the direction of Capt. Russ Sklenka, the RCOC’s chair and the Association’s executive administrator, the committee’s members work with ALPA’s Air Safety Organization, the Collective Bargaining Committee, and other union subject-matter experts to assess the consequences of reducing the human element in airline operations and communicate this information in a meaningful way to the different audiences who need to hear it. Since its inception in May, the PCRCO and its new continuing counterpart have served as a single point of contact within ALPA on all reduced-crew issues, particularly in the urban and advanced air mobility sector.

As the FAA evaluates certification of urban air mobility aircraft, ALPA is filing comments in the Federal Register for each type of application so that the regulator and stakeholders are reminded that for safety to remain a priority, the appropriate certification process must be developed as these new-entrant vehicles integrate into the national airspace system.

As this issue of Air Line Pilot goes to press, the Association is preparing comments in response to Joby Aviation’s JAS4-1 airworthiness criteria. In May 2020, Joby was the first to sign a G-1 certification basis with the FAA. But earlier this year, the FAA announced that urban air mobility aircraft would be certified as a special class of powered-lift aircraft under Part 21.17(b). ALPA knows that these unprecedented decisions could ultimately lead to serious consequences down the line, which makes the RCOC’s work so timely and impactful.

“With our current level of technology, any efforts to reduce minimum flight deck staffing levels pose unnecessary risks to pilots, our passengers and cargo, and the general public. ALPA’s mandate has been and will always be that safety is priority one,” said Sklenka.

In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Congress is beginning work on the next FAA reauthorization. To ensure that the final legislation doesn’t include any attempt to reduce the number of crewmembers on the flight deck, the RCOC is planning a robust public-engagement and education campaign. As evident from efforts in 2018, some special interests will stop at nothing to lay the groundwork to change existing regulations regarding single-pilot operations.

Prior to the last FAA reauthorization, ALPA, through extensive outreach efforts, was successful in removing Section 744 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which would have established a research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft.

To combat any future efforts, the RCOC is also working on developing an updated white paper that will serve as a vital resource for pilots when meeting with legislators, regulators, and industry stakeholders. In the three years since ALPA’s most recent white paper on this topic, there’s still no compelling evidence showing that reducing the flight crew in airline operations should be pursued. However, significant data shows that having two pilots on the flight deck is still the best safety feature.

RCOC members have spent a great deal of time ensuring that they have their finger on the pulse of the industry. Through extensive efforts, they continue to gather intel and data on how aircraft manufacturers sell potential options to their customers. Securing and sharing this information is critical to changing the narrative and focusing on how often it takes two pilots to intervene when aircraft emergencies arise.

North American commercial aviation is the safest form of transportation in history, and it’s ALPA’s mandate to keep this distinction. Addressing the many avenues—legislative, regulatory, contractual, and public engagement—to advance awareness of this issue is critical to maintaining the most vital safety feature on any aircraft: two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested professional pilots on the flight deck.

Superior Airmanship

Day and night, pilots safely transport passengers and cargo to their destinations, routinely performing the expected. They also safely manage the unexpected when situations arise. To honor those flight crews that have experienced unexpected and extraordinary events while piloting their aircraft, ALPA bestows upon them its Superior Airmanship Award.

In each article of this nine-part series, Air Line Pilot has highlighted an incident from the past in which flight crews—working as a team—used their knowledge, skills, and abilities to make the difference between a safe landing and the unthinkable alternative. These incidents truly highlight why two pilots are required on the flight deck.

On Dec. 5, 2013, Capt. Edward Bird, F/O Kenneth Wasson, and F/O Daniel Wright were the flight crew of Delta Air Lines Flight 415, B-767 service from Madrid, Spain, to New York.

At takeoff rotation, the right rear outboard main landing gear tire exploded, blowing a hole through both the bottom and top of the aircraft’s right wing and rupturing lines in two of the three aircraft hydraulic systems. The pilots continued the takeoff and subsequently had to prepare to execute an overweight landing with no right engine reverse thrust or nosewheel steering and wheel braking limited to emergency brakes.

The pilots relied on their thorough training and considerable experience to deal with the serious situation aboard their aircraft. They managed their flight deck duties flawlessly by widening the team and perfectly coordinating with air traffic control, maintenance, and company dispatch. The pilots executed multiple procedures in a short time in preparation for landing and managed the postlanding evacuation of the aircraft in a highly professional manner.

As a result, none of the 200 passengers or eight flight attendants were injured, and the damage to the airplane was minimized.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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