European aviation regulators have ruled out an industry push to allow planes to fly with only one pilot by 2030, and said only more experienced pilots could be alone in the cockpit, according to a senior official.
The regulator is weighing a pitch for limited solo flying in the less strenuous cruise phase from European planemakers Airbus SE and Dassault Aviation SA, with at least two pilots remaining in the cockpit for take-off and landing.
Among the limitations would be barring pilots with medical conditions or too few hours of experience from being solo in the cockpit, Andrea Boiardi, a manager with the regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), told Reuters, revealing previously undisclosed details.
The aviation industry wants solo flying to help ease the bite of a challenging labor shortage since that would allow at least one pilot to rest during long-haul trips, eventually reducing staffing.
However, Boiardi said totally single-pilot flying by 2030 was “absolutely not realistic” because automation has not advanced far enough and solo flying requires a level of safety equivalent to existing operations.
Solo flying, even in cruise, needs approval from the United Nations aviation agency, individual airlines and their pilot unions. The U.N. agency is expected to begin studying the issue early this year.
Boiardi said only the most advanced planes, equipped to a higher level of safety than required by minimum certification standards, could be used for solo flying in cruise. That would include the Airbus A350 and potentially the newer Boeing 787 and 777X planes.
EASA is seeking input on the matter from airlines and pilots in a process expected to wrap in March, Boiardi said in the first in-depth interview EASA has given on the subject.
A scaled-back version of solo flying, which would not start before at least 2027, would initially target improved pilot rest during regular flights, he said. A fatigued aviator could plan to sleep in a bunk rather than take short unplanned naps on the flight deck.
If the safety is proven, eventually long-haul crews that now require three or four pilots could be reduced to two, with both pilots in the cockpit for the more demanding take-off and landing phases, Boiardi added.
Even limited solo flying, however, is dividing airlines and raising public fears, while sparking a growing backlash among pilot groups like the European Cockpit Association.
“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada are very much aware of our position that two pilots on the flight deck is the most safe,” said Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Canada president Tim Perry.
The FAA declined to comment while Transport Canada said it would “monitor developments.”
While Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways has talked with manufacturers about reduced-crew operations, Air France Chief Executive Anne Rigail told Reuters single-pilot operations are not a priority.
An industry source familiar with Airbus’s project said an A350 used for single-pilot flight would feature extra automated protections against threats like fire and engine failure, and maintain autopilot functions in more circumstances than today.
Airbus said in a statement it was studying the concept of a single pilot in the cruise phase but not wholly single-pilot flights. Dassault did not respond to requests for comment, while Boeing deferred questions to regulators.
Boiardi said the concepts under review did not differentiate between cargo and passenger flights. Consumer resistance, however, could result in single-pilot flying starting with cargo flights, industry officials said.
(Reporting By Jamie Freed in Sydney and Allison Lampert in Montreal; additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris; Editing by Ben Klayman and Jonathan Oatis)
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