Aviation's Safeguard: Two Pilots Always on the Flight Deck
By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer
ALPA staunchly advocates that the most vital safety feature on any airliner is having two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested pilots on the flight deck.
Editor’s note: Exposing the dangers of single-pilot 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.
“Today’s professional pilots have earned the stripes atop their shoulders through hard work, countless hours of study, and wisdom gained through vital experience. No computer or pilot in a remote setting can match an onboard pilot’s dedication to making each flight better than the last.”
—Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President
Today, airliners are designed with important redundancies and safeguards. One that likely comes to mind is an aircraft’s two engines, but undoubtedly the most important safety feature on an airliner is having two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested pilots on the flight deck. Professional aviators have contributed to the safest period of commercial passenger aviation, and airline travel continues to be the world’s safest mode of transportation.
Yet some continue to push for reducing the number of flightcrew members on board airliners—possibly down to even a single pilot—simply to reduce costs. ALPA, widely regarded as “the conscience of the airline industry,” is adamant that both single-pilot operations and reduced-crew operations would compromise safety, posing an unacceptable risk.
The subject of crew complement has long been a topic of discussion and debate in the airline industry. When the first B-737s rolled off the production line in the late 1960s, Boeing required a three-person crew—captain, copilot, and flight engineer—due in part to ALPA’s policy regarding crew complement. Although B-737s were designed with far more automation than previous airliners, ALPA made the safety case to keep the additional set of eyes, ears, and hands on the flight deck as a safeguard in the event of crew incapacitation or high-workload situations, like approaches to minimums, go-arounds, diversions, or instrument failures. Only after the concept of a two-person crew was rigorously tested and proven to be safe did the Association agree to what is now the industry norm—two pilots on the flight deck.
But the real question is: Why is this critical safety issue being discussed now?
Special-interest groups focused only on the bottom line believe that reducing the number of pilots on the flight deck will lower labor costs. Removing the safeguard of a second pilot or potentially both pilots effectively may decrease labor costs, but this action comes at the expense of safety.
An Unacceptable Exception
A target for those looking to put cost cutting in front of safety has and continues to be all-cargo operations. Due to a flawed cost-benefit methodology, safety regulations that apply to passenger-carrying operations have not been applied to all-cargo operations. Pilots who fly for all-cargo operations were notably “carved out” from the updated science-based flight-time/duty-time rules of FAR Part 117, and cargo pilots don’t always have access to aircraft rescue and firefighting resources at airports due to the hours that all-cargo operations take place.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a provision in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 supporting a program to eliminate pilots from cargo airliners. This provision, part of a separate bill known as the FLIGHT R&D Act, was added by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee without a hearing, markup, or debate in any congressional forum. The proposal would have authorized a new program and funding for research, development, and implementation of single-pilot or remote-piloting cargo operations in commercial aviation using taxpayers’ dollars.
ALPA launched a Call to Action in opposition to the provision that resulted in more than 5,000 communications to Congress in just 48 hours. Ultimately, members of Congress responded to the will of their constituents and removed the language from the final bill.
However, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 is in effect only through Sept. 30, 2023. The next FAA reauthorization could contain similar language that seeks to undermine safety yet again. ALPA will continue to lead the charge to ensure that any provisions that undermine safety are not included.
While the U.S. has withheld public funds to explore this type of program, elsewhere in the world companies like Airbus are looking to make inroads. At the Dubai Airshow in November 2021, the company unveiled its A350 freighter, which according to Airbus’s CEO could be a “candidate” for single-pilot operations.
The aircraft manufacturer reported that the highly automated Airbus freighter won’t make its debut until later in the decade when the company hopes to broaden its capabilities in the single-pilot realm. But Airbus’s intentions are clear, and other companies like Honeywell, Dassault, and Xwing are all actively working on projects to increase flight deck automation that would reduce workload and potentially the number of flightcrew members aboard to safely operate an aircraft—or eliminate the crew completely.
Pilots = Safety
“The past decade is proof positive of how pilots have helped make commercial aviation the safest mode of transportation in the world,” DePete remarked. “Today, millions of passengers and tons of cargo travel to destinations around the globe with ease and with little concern of arriving safely, thanks to the tremendous efforts of aviation professionals.”
ALPA will continue to staunchly advocate that the most vital safety feature on any airliner is having two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested pilots on the flight deck.
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 is highlighting 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.
On April 21, 1984, Eastern Airlines Flight 494 had just departed Atlanta, Ga., for Greensboro, N.C., when a faulty right thrust reverser inadvertently swung open, causing the DC-9 to roll uncontrollably to the right. Quickly, the flight crew—Capt. James Robertson and F/O J.L. Bellmer—shut down the No. 2 engine and managed to initiate a slow, climbing turn just above stall speed. They returned to the airport and executed a safe landing of their crippled aircraft. There was no procedure, either emergency or abnormal, outlining the steps the flight crew should follow in this situation. This is one of the few recorded instances of an aircraft recovering safely from the unintentional deployment of reverse thrust on one engine during flight.
It was later discovered that the hydraulic system that normally keeps the thrust reversers in place had malfunctioned, and backup safety latches were defective.
To learn more about the safety benefits of two experienced, well-trained, and well-rested professional pilots on board an airliner, read:
- ALPA’s white paper: “The Dangers of Single-Pilot Operations”
- 2018 public survey: “Few Would be Comfortable with Flying on Pilotless Airliners”
- 2017 NASA study: “An Assessment of Reduced Crew and Single Pilot Operations in Commercial Transport Aircraft Operation”