How many pilots does it take to fly a commercial airliner?
At the moment the regulators say two, but any aircraft could be flown by a single pilot.
The most basic safety argument for requiring two is pilot incapacitation, but flightdecks are designed so that the one remaining fit pilot can bring the aircraft home safely, even if it were the captain who had become incapacitated. So, regulation accepts that a single pilot can operate an airliner, but only allows it in an emergency.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority comments that any change to safety-related regulation has to meet the principle of "equivalent safety". In other words, one pilot plus high technology must be demonstrated to be at least as good as, but preferably better than, two pilots are in existing flightdecks. It's actually going to be quite difficult to argue that case!
When debating the single-pilot airliner, the practical considerations and cultural reactions are much more interesting than the regulatory issues.
Here's one such practical consideration: all airline pilots would have to be rated as aircraft commanders, but how would they achieve that competency without a co-piloting apprenticeship?
Here's another: if security regulations remain as they are, all types except short-hop regionals would require an en-suite flightdeck. And to allow even brief pilot absences from the controls, the autopilot must have a mode that does not allow it to trip out, which raises lots of technical questions.
Some 60 years ago, airliners with about 30 passenger seats on board needed a pair of pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and radio operator because the workload was so high in each of those roles. The reasons such a crew is no longer necessary are too obvious to need rehearsing here. An aeroplane today may be extremely complex, but automation and massive advances in system reliability has reduced the human operator's workload dramatically.
Meanwhile Embraer, the first manufacturer to break cover on the issue of single-pilot crews, cites future air traffic management systems as an influential enabling component. The new environment will be one in which the precise four-dimensional navigation of a flight will have become a largely automated, centrally co-ordinated exercise.
A single human operative in a completely automated environment who hardly ever had to do anything would risk being psychologically out of the loop when the automation failed, and therefore highly likely to be ineffective. So why put one on the aeroplane?
The questions that really arise are not whether the crew could be reduced to one, but the more subjective issues of whether it should be done, whether it is practical, and finally whether the pilot would best be on the aircraft, or controlling it remotely.
The airline ops room of the future could have a sophisticated fleet tracking and real-time aircraft health monitoring system, and be staffed by a pool of duty pilots with cockpit-like workstations, ready to take control of any aircraft that alerts the base of even the most minor problem.
It will be increasingly rare that things go wrong, so why bother having a remote pilot assigned to each aircraft? The ratio might be one pilot to five aircraft. At least that would keep the pilots busy, maintaining their expertise so they will be effective when they are needed.
Take-off, en-route flight and landing would all be completely automated. The only thing that probably won't be is taxiing, navigating around the airport, and parking on the stand. That will keep the pilots busy.
Brave new world!
Will it happen? You tell me.