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Planemakers work on tech to cut pilot numbers

FARNBOROUGH, England / SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Airplane manufacturers are working to adapt jets to reduce the number of pilots needed for long-haul flights and to build new cockpits designed for a single aviator in order to ease a global pilot shortage and cut airline costs.

Airbus SE and Thales SA expect the number of cockpit crew on long-haul flights, typically three or four, could be reduced to two from 2023 thanks to new technology to reduce pilot workload.

“That’s not an absurd date. Reducing crew on long-range looks to be the most accessible step because there is another pilot onboard,” Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus head of engineering, told Reuters at the Farnborough Airshow.

Boeing Co is examining the possibility of having reduced manning in the cockpit of a proposed mid-sized jet that it aims to have in service by 2025 if it proceeds with a launch decision next year.

“You can see the drivers from both angles,” said Graham Braithwaite, Director of Transport Systems at Britain’s Cranfield University. “The technology to fly an aircraft on automatic is brilliant. The other driver in all this is that we’re really short of pilots. They’re a very expensive resource.”

The proponents of reduced numbers in the cockpit say the move, which could begin with cargo flights, is inevitable, just as pilot numbers were cut from three to two in the 1980s when the flight engineer position was axed due to improved design on new jets like the Boeing 757.

Airlines globally could save around $15 billion a year by going down to a single pilot, UBS said, and at a time of a pilot shortage this would help ensure there are enough aviators to serve a fast-growing industry.

Replacing the vast array of knobs and switches with more digital interfaces familiar to today’s teenagers could also help to shorten the amount of time it takes to train pilots, thus easing the shortage.

Ultimately, the goal would be for a fully autonomous commercial jet along the lines of a driverless car, although that technology, which requires clean-sheet jet designs from the major manufacturers, could take until 2040, according to an estimate from Thales.

Critics, however, say there are good safety reasons for having more than two pilots in the cockpit on long-haul flights and at least two on shorter journeys, with the costs outweighed by the benefits.

For example, reducing cockpit numbers to one in the cruise phase of a long-haul flight could increase fatigue and vulnerability in the event of an unexpected in-flight incident while the other pilot is resting, said three pilots who spoke to Reuters, pointing to the Air France 447 crash in 2009.

Even with three pilots on board, the A330 was not recovered from a high altitude stall. In that case, the two more junior aviators were at the controls and the captain, once retrieved from resting, was unable to intervene in time to save the plane.

Other concerning scenarios include the deliberate crash of a Germanwings jet by one of its pilots in 2015 and the risk of a single pilot suffering from an in-flight health problem.

Moving to a single pilot would also create training difficulties, said Stuart Beveridge, an Australian commercial pilot and aviation researcher, because the first officer role is considered an apprentice step before taking on the responsibilities of a captain.

The financial benefits of reducing crew numbers could also be marginal, said aviation consultant James Halstead, because airline cost savings would likely be passed through to passengers in the form of lower ticket prices.

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