Why fight over authorizing Single-Pilot Research?

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Stop Government Funding of Single-Piloted Commercial Aircraft-ALPA

Teamsters, ALPA, IPA Statement on Single-Pilot Cargo Aircraft

NASA already studying 

FAA and NASA already have the authority

Research is a good thing

The cargo pilots of Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l, the Independent Pilots Association, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Airline Division issued the following statement concerning the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (H.R. 4) introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday.

“While we applaud Members of Congress on their efforts regarding the release of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, we are deeply concerned with the language contained in Section 744—a provision that would introduce significant aviation safety and security risks for cargo aircraft. Specifically, this provision establishes a research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.


“The desire by some in the industry to pursue single-piloted or autonomously piloted cargo aircraft seriously places the American public and the flight crews of these aircraft in a tenuous position…. With the increasing frequency and severity of reports regarding computer hacking, accidents in current military and civilian drone operations, and mounting reports of autonomous vehicle accidents, we think any serious consideration of this technology is premature at best.”

Cockpits on most commercial aircraft up until the ‘70s were composed of a pilot-in-command/captain, second-in-command/first officer and an engineer. Ergonomic studies[1] determined that the crew could be reduced to two based on a work load analysis. The No-Single-Piloted Aircraft has a historical precedent.

The opposition to Section 744, to research and development program in support of single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting, is one iteration from approving the pilot staffing reduction. ALPA, IPA and IBT responded vehemently in June by sending about 150 members from across the U.S to meet with the House and Senate leaders. ALPA President Tim Canoll explained “At the eleventh hour and with no advance notice, a dangerous provision was inserted into the House FAA reauthorization bill by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to push for single-piloted and computer-piloted operations of cargo airliners. This is an attack on our profession, passenger and cargo operations alike.”

Another commentator observed that “Airline pilots are bristling at the suggestion that the nation’s pilot shortage can be solved by a transition to single-pilot cockpits, calling the plan an attack on safety and urging Congress to act.”

Before some Silicon Valley wizard created virtual reality, the game has been played in Washington. Section 744 seems to be classical example of VR games use of false targets.

First, why did a Congressperson deem it needed to introduce “authorizing language” when both NASA and the FAA have existing statutory basis to introduce[2] such research? [NOTE: authorizing legislation which adds substantive authority to an agency USUALLY requires appropriations to spend money on the project. Not needed here.]

Why submit legislation authorizing research, when the existing statutes already make such work within the agency scope?

Why oppose legislation authorizing research, when the work is already authorized?

Second, NASA since 2015 has been “advancing an airliner flight deck of the future that features one seat in the cockpit for a captain and one on the ground, occupied by an operator filling the role of either “super dispatcher” or first officer. The research, while rife with political and public ramifications that could far outweigh the technical challenges, is far less science fiction than it was three years ago.”

Why submit legislation authorizing research, when the work is already being done by NASA?

Why oppose legislation authorizing research, when the work is already being done by NASA?

Third, Boeing research and technology vice-president Charles Toups commented on one-pilot operations “We are studying that, and where you will first see that is probably in cargo transport, so the passenger question is off the table… It would take a “couple of decades” to persuade passengers to take a single-pilot jet, he said, adding that gaining public support for the concept would be a step-by-step process starting with proliferation of self-driving cars. Boeing co-operates with General Motors to develop technologies for autonomous flight.”

Why submit legislation authorizing research, when the work is already being done by Boeing?

Why oppose legislation authorizing research, when the work is already being done by Boeing?

Virtual Reality in Washington defines dimensions unfamiliar to engineers and scientists. Sometimes battles are drawn not because the debate is needed, but rather because a constituent wants the issue to get greater publicity and sometimes the union replies to energize its membership.

Autonomous operations of vehicles with human drivers from 0 to 3 is a significant subject for industries and policy-makers to debate. More research will elevate the quality of that public policy discussion; platitudes and untested qualitative hypotheses do not move towards reasoned decisions. Precise risk analyses are most likely to justify difficult decisions—from ⇒barring automation to ⇒strict pre-operation certification like the FAA’s rules to  to self-certification.

Aviation and other modes of transportation are experiencing a high level of innovation. Some libertarians suggest that any a priori regulation will deter or diminish such stimulation of the economy. Research or better information should justify a regulatory mechanism which balances public safety against jobs.

Passing Section 844, however needlessly, may enhance our knowledge; so, Congress go ahead and pass it. ALPA, IPA and IBT relax; you will have greater transparency and opportunity to contribute in a Section 844 project.

[1] A 1967 Boeing-United B-737 study was the basis for the reduction First-Hand:Evolution of the 2-Person Crew Jet Transport Flight Deck


[2] One might argue that Section 844 adds value by mandating a 6-month report deadline. If there was an index of agencies meeting Congressional schedules for report, the FAA would be in the lower quartile. There is a good reason why the FAA’s record is not what the Hill wants—it has an existing list of priorities and safety impacts move matters to the top.


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1 Comment on "Why fight over authorizing Single-Pilot Research?"

  1. This is all about protecting jobs. If the airlines cared about safety, they wouldn’t allow depressed pilots to take meds, or police their alcoholics in the cockpit. At present they are still hiring off the bottom of the resume pile for pilots that take orders, not experience. They get away with this because they autopilot’s fly the plane and the MFD takes care of situational awareness. Take away the GPS, MFD, and autopilot, the airlines would be grounded until they could hire pilots again.

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