Europe Urges Automation, FAA Stresses Stick And Rudder


As European regulators began lobbying the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) to develop automation standards that will allow single-pilot airliner operations, the FAA issued an advisory circular that stresses CRM and maintaining manual flying skills. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) filed a working paper with ICAO on Monday asking that the structure be developed for “for a safe and globally harmonized introduction of commercial air transport (CAT) operations of large aeroplanes with optimised crew/single-pilot operations while ensuring an equivalent or higher level of safety compared to that achieved in current operations.”

Meanwhile on the other side of the pond, the FAA published Advisory Circular AC 120-123 that stresses pilots always be monitoring the systems to ensure they’re taking the airplane where it’s supposed to go. The AC issued Monday is the final version of a proposed AC we reported in February. The Flightpath Management (FPM) AC is aimed at ensuring pilots remain an active part of the operation of the aircraft regardless of how many microchips are aboard. It also stresses ongoing training and practice to ensure they can take over if there’s a system meltdown. “All aspects of training should clearly instill an understanding that FPM is primary at all times,” the AC says. “Training on individual procedures or operation of individual items of flight deck equipment, under both normal and non-normal conditions, should be conveyed to ensure the trainee understands how the topic fits within the overarching context of FPM.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I am a private pilot, but i don’t agree with he idea of a single pilot in an airplane.
    My self I never fly alone today which I did in the past
    remembre that Twin engine plane with customer inside where the captain said he was tired and went relax in the back of the cokpit. Mean while the second officer closed also his eyes and was awake by the sound of the wind and realize they were crashing and he brought the plane in line and nothing happen finally.
    Michel DENIS France

    • Automation for single pilot operation means airplane can be operated by a single pilot. It doesn’t mean prohibiting more than one pilot on board.
      To me it is scarier to rely on crews made of partial pilots and to fly on airplane not fit for partial crews.

  2. Another step in Europe toward the ultimate goal of no pilots at all. The ‘pilot’ of a heavily automated aircraft will be reduced to the role of ‘flight monitor’, which can be performed from the ground.

  3. Single pilot airliners are coming one way or another. I’m not a fan of the idea but economics and technology are driving the industry in that direction. The aircraft will probably be controlled from ground/satellite sources with minimal pilot input except for maybe takeoff and approach/landing. It’s just a matter of time.

  4. Having flown C150s to B767s, I’d say shame on EASA and kudos to the FAA.

    Yes, an automated large aircraft can be handled by a single pilot. But…. What happens when the automation fails.

    Case in point, A320 series aircraft have had multiple incidents of nose wheel steering failures. In that case (as with JetBlue’s incident years ago at LAX), not only could the gear not be retracted, the autopilot became inoperative. So, now you have an aircraft failure requiring troubleshooting, decision making and communications, but also one pilot dedicated to aircraft control the aircraft.

    Or, what is that single pilot has a medical incapacitation event?

    Just because this can be done technically, the public at large (especially when considering transport category aircraft) deserve the additional security and safety of a 2nd crew member

    • Agreed. I just don’t get the cost analysis driving the European initiative. If a right-seater making $140,000/yr flys 200 flights a year, s/he costs the airline $700 per flight. Is that really where you want to save money? If my math is wrong, someone please correct me.

      • For the bean counters, that’s probably a significant enough amount of money. Plus there are other possible savings (health and investment plans).

  5. Manufacturers have been moving towards the goal of no pilots in the cockpit, or as they have been redefining it as “Flight Deck” for the past 20 years. Airbus leading the push to do so. In some ways I understand the desire to do so since the majority of accidents are always and will always be pilot error.

    With AI now being developed at ever increasing speed it’s only a matter of decreasing time that their goal will be realized.

    A Sci Fi world that I am not looking forward to.

  6. All one has to do is remember Air France flight 447 to see the potential problems. In that case a poorly trained pilot was the problem, and of course with instrument failure, automation also failed. Today the milataries have drones controlled from far away, and such capabilities would be an additional safety feature, should all pilots become incapacitated. That would also allow naferious activity from outside the aircraft. One pilot, two pilots, three pilots, zero pilots, it really doesn’t matter, if all possible situations can be handled. In spite of pilot errors, I’d prefer at least one capable pilot on hand for unexpected occurances. There will be such.

    • Yes – money is probably the key point, which leads to the question of what that means for the paying customer. Suppose there were two airliners available for every route, one with the traditional two-person crew, and the other with a one-person crew at a lower price. How much difference would it make in ticket prices? Would the customer go for the savings (if any) or the human redundancy? Would be an interesting marketing survey.

  7. I agree with the majority here:two pilots, period. Airplanes are not elevators, which were easily automated.
    What I don’t understand is the big rush to replace humans with circuit boards. Supplement humans with circuit boards, don’t replace them! Sheesh!

  8. I really don’t like the idea of single pilot operation of airliners. Some reasons have been mentioned above.

    There have been two pilot incapacitations just this week, one on Envoy/American Eagle and one on Gulf Air. Luckily, the Envoy flight was still on the ground. The Gulf Air flight diverted to Iran.

    This is a rarity, I grant you. However, if this was to happen in the air I doubt the passengers would take any comfort from the fact the single pilot operation saved the carrier money…

    • Gregg, the Envoy flight took off. The Captain became incapacitated after takeoff. There was a check Captain in the right seat who landed the plane. Unfortunately the left seat pilot passed away.

  9. Unless the sue happy legal system in the US changes, I don’t see any US airline going to single pilot airline ops. That would also require several FAR changes to accommodate single pilot airline ops. All it would take is an airliner crash into a school (since local governments don’t seem to want to follow FAA guidelines on airport protected zones) with the following lawsuits to end any though of single pilot airline ops. Wish I had a constructive comment on the European thoughts on this so I will keep those thoughts to myself.

  10. I am a commercial pilot, A&P IA, and DER aircraft engineer. I work assiduously to ensure that everything on the airplanes I approve is absolutely perfect, but throughout my 60 year career, I have seen failures of just about every aircraft system. Airplanes are designed and maintained by humans, so some errors will creep in. These errors can be overcome only by another human, the trained and professional pilot. It do not often praise the FAA, but in this instance I am proud of them.

  11. This is just to save money. Having the second pilot there to monitor the first is essential to safety. The record of first world’s nations airlines proves it works. Also the accident in California when the airliner hit the end of the runway shows what lack of stick and rudder skills can lead to. All they had to do was add power but they were so used to automation they crashed the plane instead.

  12. I’m a lowly, low-time private pilot but in spite of my inexperience, the single pilot airliner concept strikes me as madness. Sure, it can be done but to what end? So that the airlines can lower their ticket prices? I doubt it. Or is it so the airline owners or shareholders can get an earnings boost? I don’t doubt it for a second. Greed is an ugly thing.

  13. The ultimate decision will be made in blood. The concept of single pilot or autonomous a/c will proceed until the first fatalities. History will be repeated. It always does.

  14. If the airlines want to save money they should change the number of Flight Attendants per flight requirements. It should be based on passengers/flight hours. I would suggest 1 FA per 100 pax/hour. Drop the FA requirement for under 100 passengers on a flight scheduled under an hour. If a passenger is in need of assistance on these short hops the Co-Pilot can attend to them.

    Most flights anymore show the emergency briefing on monitors. Movies are accessed by a phone app and they rarely serve refreshments or snacks on short hops anyway. Longer flights can have an app for ordering/paying for $20 crackers and coffee.

    • Until an emergency requiring an evacuation! Emergencies are the only reason the FAA has required flight attendants, not serving drinks or collecting trash. The number of flight attendants on an airliner in the US are mandated by the FAA. If an emergency occurs, the first officer has enough things to do in the cockpit supporting the captain dealing with that emergency.

      • The thought of one pilot in an airliner at this point still makes me feel uncomfortable. However the counter for emergencies is that the automation will handle that better too. The first officer may have much to do, but that’s with current automation. With future automation, it would probably be far less. Air France 447, mentioned by someone else, would be a very good example. And now that there is already one-button automation for landing an airplane from the point of the emergency enroute when there is one incapacitated pilot, it’s obvious that development and evaluation is going to continue.

      • Matt W., If the airlines and EASA where worried about safety, eliminating the Co-Pilot would be the last thing they should do. By-the-way, I don’t agree with any of the automation replacing personnel stuff. I’m just suggesting if they are looking to gamble with passenger lives start with the Flight Attendants not the Pilots.

  15. On a current news note…, The car coming at you doing 60 mph in the oncoming lane has eliminated the human driver. Quote from today’s news: “The wait is finally over for Tesla owners who paid $10,000, or as of recently $15,000, for the controversial driver-assistance system, also known as “Full Self-Driving.”

    Twitter, SpaceX, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Thursday morning, “FSD Beta is now available to anyone in North America who requests it from the car screen, assuming you have bought this option.”

    That makes the person sitting in the driver seat equivalent to a Co-Pilot. Since the actual primary driver is the computer.

  16. Maybe when the no pilot cockpit is achieved in Europe they will coincidentally also have no passengers riding in the back of the plane. Just me, but since I retired as a corporate pilot in 2018, I haven’t been on a commercial airliner, and there’s no place I want to go bad enough that would entice me to get on another one.

  17. And how much do you trust the Tesla copilot? Car-to-car monitoring of drivers? See the Tesla copilots inattentive face on your screen? How long does it take to prod such a person awake?
    I am pleased at the FAA’s stand and perplexed at Europe’s. Aren’t they supposed to be more advanced than we backward Americans?

  18. Kids are building robots with increasing capability. Robot assisted surgeries and diagnosis are reported in numbers that are no longer ‘amazing’. Human pilots have made and continue to make frequent errors on flights — many of which result in accidents. Technology for remote operations and command of very large and capable drones is already in daily use. Gotta face it. Pilots are likely already obsolete, and certainly be the railroad’s firemen on the flight deck soon… if not already unneeded cogs.

  19. With the significantly increasing numbers of pilots and non-pilots succumbing to adverse reactions, clotting and deaths from those clot-shots, single pilot ops is a REALLY bad idea.

  20. I just retired after a long career flying mostly long-haul international routes. I’ve had complete primary display failures in both a 747-400 and a 787, despite the fact that it’s “not supposed to happen”. Both times it required two pilots working as a team, one flying the aircraft manually, while the other was trying to solve the problem. These problems caused loss of autopilot, throttles, all nav displays, navigation and required manually reentering data and an extended recovery time to complete. One pilot could not possibly have done the job. In addition, one occurred at high latitude where there was no satellite coverage for a “ground operator” and was out of all audio communication range. Single pilot operations are just a foolish idea and I hope that pilots world-wide will simply shut the system down if they ever try to force the issue.