Airlines Urged To Split Flight Crew Between Ground and Cockpit

 - July 6, 2016, 9:00 AM
A study by Toulouse-based Air and Space Academy pitches single-pilot operations in air transport by 2050. (Photo: Thierry Dubois)

Airliners will continue to be flown by two pilots for years to come, but opearators should start considering the case for one of these pilots to be based on the ground, according to experts at France's Air and Space Academy (AAE). At a conference last month in Toulouse, the experts reported on research suggesting that increased automation is driving greater safety, which would be further enhanced by splitting piloting responsibilities between cockpit- and ground-based flight crew. In their view, this goal is attainable for flights of any duration by 2050.

In this scenario, the so-called pilot-on-the-ground (PG) and the pilot-on-board (PB), would both be trained and fully qualified as commercial pilots. The theory outlined by AAE is that the PG would be prepared to react within 10 minutes in the event of the PB needing support. During a long-haul flight, the PG could assume control on a planned basis while the PB takes a rest.

The AAE estimates that one PG simultaneously could take care of five short- to medium-haul flights, on average. That number could increase to seven flights after a few years of experience, combined with efficiency improvement and pilot workload reduction. In long-haul operations, a pair of PGs could deal with six to eight flights simultaneously.

According to Bernard Rontani, Airbus senior vice president and head of its systems center of competence, the Toulouse-based airframer has begun working on plans for single-PB operations for medium-haul operations.

While proponents recognize that the concept will elicit fierce debate, progress in neuroergonomics might find ways to cope with human weaknesses that might limit a PG’s effectiveness. Frédéric Dehais, holder of the AXA Chair for flight safety, leads a research laboratory in Toulouse studying neuroergonomics for pilots. One recent focus has centered on so-called alarm deafness. Visual dominance shapes most human brains, according to Dehais. A visual stimulus can override a simultaneous aural stimulus in 100 milliseconds, which is actually faster than the  300 milliseconds it takes for the brain to become conscious of the stimuli. Before the brain recognizes the stimulus, it can shut down its own aural channel, which is what Dehais characterized as alarm deafness. Although such cases of alarm deafness are rare, some high-profile accidents have made them infamous.

In a bid to help the crew with situational awareness, Thales gave details on the “fly by trajectory” feature in its Avionics 2020 flight deck demonstrator. Synthetic vision displays the upcoming flight path with a blue line equivalent to two or three minutes of flight. The source of information is the flight director, programmed by the crew. If the pilot makes an input on the stick, the blue line will bend accordingly. The system might also offer a flight path that detours around a thunderstorm.