A proposed study of single pilot cockpits for cargo aircraft, championed by a powerful congressman but viewed by pilots a threat to air safety, is facing obstacles.

The two-pilot cockpit is a key component of the safety infrastructure that makes U.S. commercial aviation perhaps the safest transportation system in the history of the world. Nevertheless, a provision that would enable a study of single-pilot operation of cargo aircraft remains on the table as part of legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

The legislation has cleared Congress and awaits a Senate vote.  Last week, the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 60,000 pilots at 34 airlines, asked members to contact members of Congress and the Senate to express opposition.

Meanwhile, Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) is seeking to erode any impact from a single pilot study provision by inserting oversight language into the House transportation funding bill.  The language, which provides guidance to agencies on how they should make funding decisions, has been unanimously approved by the house transportation committee; the bill awaits congressional approval.

“Pilot groups are pushing back really hard” against the concept of single pilot cockpits for cargo aircraft, said Lee Collins, president of the 33,000-member Coalition for Airline Pilot Associations, which includes single-airline pilot unions at American and UPS as well as pilots in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

“We are getting way ahead of ourselves, trying to find a way to integrate drones and drone technology into our national air space system,” Collins said. “The industry that wants this is frustrated by the pace it’s going at and wants it to go much faster. It’s a giant power grab to increase bottom line profit margins for companies that have this technology.”

In a recent speech to ALPA leaders, ALPA President Tim Canoll declared, “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,” Canoll said. “ALPA will use every resource we have to ensure that this anti-safety provision is not enacted.”

The proposal to study a single pilot cockpit was introduced by U.S. Rep LaMar Smith, R.-Texas. He is chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the Department of Energy and other agencies.

Cartwright’s language in the transportation bill reads, “The committee recognizes that great strides in the safety of our airspace have been made possible by the presence of two well-trained, qualified pilots in our commercial aircraft. Funds made available in this act to study alternative crew compliments for flight decks in commercial operations should prioritize the safety effects relative to two-person flights.”

Following approval, Cartwright thanked Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

“For many years, aviation has been the safest form of transportation in the United States,” Cartwright said. “This is by no means an accident; it is the result of a strong regulatory framework built over time, paired with an ongoing airline system safety culture that is one of the most ambitious in our nation’s history.

“In non-routine situations, the workload on the flight deck can increase significantly in a short period of time,” Cartwright said. “Addressing these situations requires at least two well-trained, well-qualified pilots to communicate in real time without delay.

“The report language I submitted simply prioritizes the safety effects of two-person cockpit operations in any study that the Department of Transportation may be conducting,” he said.

Collins said the language is fine, but the bill needs to pass the House for it to become meaningful.

“The language that is most important is the language in the bill that has passed,” he said. “That is where the threat is.”

–Ted Reed