Two Pilots on Every Airline Flight Deck Makes the Difference

By Capt. Jason Ambrosi and Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger


Over a career, many pilots remember a moment when we felt close to the line that separates a flight’s safe outcome from a tragedy. Even a decade later, we can easily recall exactly what made the difference.


On the 14th anniversary of the Hudson River landing of US Airways Flight 1549, airline pilots around the globe intuitively recognize how two qualified, experienced, and trained aviators working as a team on the flight deck saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew. And that’s why pilots—who are entrusted to keep the flying public safe—recoil when we hear of proposals to operate airliners with fewer or even no pilots on the flight deck. 


During routine flying and emergencies, a team of pilots ensures the safety of flight. Through a watershed practice called crew resource management, we divide up responsibilities and cross-check each other. While one of us concentrates on flying the aircraft, the other monitors instruments, ensures checklists and procedures are followed, and communicates with air traffic control, flight attendants, and the airline. Of course, should an emergency arise, we also back each other up.


Through the 1980s and 1990s, the global airline industry learned the essential role that two pilots play on the flight deck—and how integral their presence is to safety. In 1989, during what became known as “The Impossible Landing,” four pilots working on the flight deck crash-landed a DC-10 following a catastrophic engine failure and total hydraulic loss, saving 184 of the 296 passengers and crew on board. Twenty years later, the Flight 1549 safe ditching on the Hudson River was rooted in the same back-to-basics principle: a team of qualified, trained, and experienced pilots successfully took on an almost complete loss of aircraft engine thrust to save the passengers and crew. 


Pilot teams work together on the flight deck every day and night on operations around the globe. But the most serious example of why at least two aviators must be on board—pilot incapacitation—is also clear. In November, a pilot became incapacitated shortly after takeoff during a regional airline flight from Chicago. Ill., to Columbus, Ohio. The other pilot on the flight deck took control and retuned the flight and passengers safely to O’Hare.


In our decades of experience as ALPA pilots, each of us has worked to make flying safer. Our success has been possible because of regulations, procedures, and processes that are built around the core principle that at least two qualified pilots are always on the flight deck. In the United States, flying is safer now than it has ever been, and our industry is making important strides in improving aviation safety around the globe. But make no mistake, reducing crew complement and removing pilots from the flight deck will take us backwards, introduce more risk, and make flying less safe. 


Given our extraordinary progress in aviation safety, we must protect the gains we have achieved, especially when it comes to maintaining at least two pilots working on every flight deck. We must also ensure both aviators have the knowledge and skills needed to do the job by maintaining airline first officer qualification and experience regulations in the United States and raising standards internationally.


We know from experience how important it is to have a highly qualified, skilled, and experienced colleague working beside us on the flight deck. We are the last line of defense. We do not depart until we are certain that the flight can be conducted safely from start to finish. Part of that certainty—for pilots as well as our passengers and shippers—comes from having at least two qualified and experienced aviators at the controls.


Capt. Jason Ambrosi is President of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l, representing more than 67,000 pilots who fly for 39 airlines in the United States and Canada.


Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is the former U.S. Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization, “Miracle on the Hudson” captain, safety expert, author, and speaker.

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