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Dubai — It’s simple, really. No pilots, no flying. A shortage of aviators is already stinging airlines, particularly in the U.S. where the whiplash of the rapid pandemic drawdown of staff in 2020 and the swift rebound in traffic in 2021 has created a hiring and training crunch.

Big carriers aiming for 2019 levels of flying need the pilots to do so, retraining its existing crews who have moved up the seniority ranks, while recruiting as many qualified pilots as possible from the regional carriers and other sources. In the immediate future, that means a more fragile air travel system and threatens service to smaller communities served by the smallest regional jets.

Related: A very real pilot shortage threatens to upend the U.S. airline recovery

Longer term, and regardless of whether the flying public, labor unions or regulators are ready, the technological foundations for single-pilot operations (SPO) are already being laid today for a coming generation of regional aircraft and freighters, spurred by retirements, a clogged pipeline of new pilots and the search for the next step change in operating economics.

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The shortage is leaving its mark today. According to a recent internal message to pilots at Horizon Air, the carrier expects up to 40% of its pilot corps — about 300 — to depart in the next year given the need for aviators at the mainline carriers.

Horizon now estimates that of the 10,000 pilots expected to be hired in 2022 at parent Alaska, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, 80% of those will come from the regionals.

“We expect Horizon to be directly impacted by this hiring blitz,” according to the message reviewed by The Air Current. The airline said it plans to hire 600 pilots over the next 13 months and its training programs are full and it is offering increased pay and retention bonuses to hold on to its pilots.

Embraer’s commercial aviation chief, Arjan Meijer, in an interview with TAC said the pilot shortage in the U.S., both near term and longer term, is a significant area of concern for the Brazilian plane maker, which now enjoys a global monopoly for new regional jets following Bombardier’s market exit.

Horizon and SkyWest Airlines ordered 17 more E175s in May for flying with Alaska. SkyWest ordered another 16 E175s for flying with Delta Air Lines in August.

“We believe the deliveries [to the U.S.] will continue and we’re helping everywhere possible to help them with training on the pilot side,” said Meijer. “But it’s definitely a risk that’s on our radar and we know the airlines are struggling with this.”

Those E175s begin arriving next year to both airlines, but Horizon said “to accommodate this level of hiring and training” the airline has rescheduled delivery of five E175s from the second quarter of 2022 to the fourth quarter of 2022 and into the first half of 2023.

Related: What happened at Southwest wasn’t a meltdown, it was a burnout

Passengers being screened by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration topped 90% of 2019 levels last week heading into the holiday season. Recent operational meltdowns at Southwest and American have been at least partially attributed to not having enough pilots and United Airlines’ exit from nine smaller cities was attributed to the same.

United States Pilot Age Profile

“This is not something that has happened yesterday. This is something that has been emerging before and after the crisis,” said Meijer, who said the 2010 1,500-hour requirement for pilots to fly for airlines “is something in the U.S. that I think we need to find solutions for, as well, because it kind of blocks” the progression of flight crews to the regional carriers.

Barry Biffle, Chief Executive of Frontier Airlines, told The Air Current that he was unconcerned about getting enough pilots to fly its all-Airbus fleet and was still receiving 10 or 12 applications for every pilot posting it had – drawing from the regional airlines. Biffle’s airline was part of a group of four ultra-low cost carriers owned by Indigo Partners that ordered 255 A321neo aircraft in Dubai, including 91 more for Frontier.

Aviation’s third rail

In the moments after it received its first commercial commitments for its new A350 Freighter in Dubai, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury poured gasoline on a long-smoldering fire — an industry debate about single-pilot operations for commercial flying, openly embracing the possibility of reduced crew flying on the new cargo hauler.

“We are looking at going to single pilot operations,” said Faury. “The 350 freighter is a 350 and there will be all commonality with the 350, so that is more of a longer term perspective that we are considering for SPO. It’s clear the freighter business might be a good candidate for entry into service of these devices and will really make sense.”

The discourse around SPO is a combination of labor dynamics, questionable social acceptance, human factors research, industrial cost structures and a regulatory system  — particularly in the U.S. — that has contributed to both a transient and structural shortage of aviators.

Related: Emergency Autoland puts Garmin on the bleeding edge of autonomous flying

While carriers grapple with the near-term chaos of a pandemic rebound, what lies ahead for an industry in need of the human infrastructure for a durable recovery is an intensifying debate around how to manage the industry’s return to growth.

“That’s the last reason we should look at single pilots in the cockpit, whether or not there’s a pilot shortage,” Congressman Rick Larsen, Chairman of the House Aviation subcommittee, told The Air Current at the Regional Airlines Association Leaders Conference in September. “The first reason ought to be whether it can be done safely, and whether the technology has advanced to a point where it can be done safely.”

Related: Pilot shortage is the X factor in Boeing’s NMA deliberation

Faury’s embrace caught many by surprise, including some senior leaders inside Airbus. The company for decades has unapologetically drawn the ire of pilots, dating back to the creation of its electronic flight control philosophy, causing its late creator, Bernard Ziegler, to receive death threats. The 1980s brought increasingly automated systems, and with it a two-crew cockpit, eliminating forever the need for a flight engineer.

FedEx Express has long sought ways to fly with reduced crew and toyed with the idea in the 2000s around reducing crew from three to two on flights longer than eight hours that started and ended at coastal airports.

That’s precisely what Airbus is considering for the A350 freighter. The plane maker recently has been exploring a reduction by one member of the flight crew from three or four or three to two— depending on the duration of the flight. Under its Project Connect, Airbus is examining regulatory changes and technology enablers that might allow a single pilot to be on the flight deck while a second crew member is excused for an extended rest during the cruise phase, for example. Europe is also funding research around single-pilot flying for its Disruptive Cockpit for Large Passenger Aircraft initiative.

Read: New rules from China set to worsen the global pilot shortage

Airbus expects to have the freighter ready for service by late 2025, but Faury said, “the freighter will probably be the right place to do entry into service [for SPO], but we are not connecting freighter and SPO.”

The logistics giant is expected to make a recommendation to its board of directors on a purchase of either the A350 freighter or Boeing 777XF in December, according to a person familiar with the company’s planning.

Sikorsky & FedEx in February quietly started single-pilot tests on a heavily modified ATR 42 freighter.

Sikorsky & FedEx in February quietly started single-pilot tests on a heavily modified ATR 42 freighter.

While Faury jumped into the industry discussion in a way that no plane maker has done before, they are not the only manufacturer exploring SPO. The Air Current reported in February that FedEx and Sikorsky had heavily modified an ATR 42 to fly with a single pilot. Asked in Dubai about its interest or involvement in the project, ATR Chief Executive Stefano Bortoli, replied with a terse: “I cannot comment on that question, unfortunately. I cannot comment.”

Related: FedEx and Sikorsky quietly begin single-pilot tests for cargo airliners

Sikorsky and FedEx continue to work on their evaluations. That demonstrator platform has been heavily-modified with new autopilot servos and clutch assemblies in pitch, roll and yaw, as well as on the power and condition levers in the cockpit. That’s in addition to cockpit interfaces that control the flaps and the system activation, according to those familiar with the technology on the aircraft. The aircraft itself is Sikorsky’s flying systems integration lab as it draws on its experience on earlier rotorcraft evaluations.

Designing for a single-pilot

Regulations still prohibit commercial single-pilot flying with more than nine passengers in the United States and 14 in Europe. A considerable shift in policy and social acceptance are prerequisites before any large aircraft are flown with a single pilot, but while those rules appear to be firmly in place, new regional aircraft are today considering cockpit designs that could enable a single aviator to operate a flight from start to finish.

“Perhaps technology will get there, but not  sure the trust gap by passengers will close at same time,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association that represents American Airlines.

Deutsche Aircraft’s D328eco is being designed with single-pilot flying from the start, enabled by a cockpit with new Garmin G5000 avionics.

Deutsche Aircraft’s D328eco is being designed with single-pilot flying from the start, enabled by a cockpit with new Garmin G5000 avionics.

Deutsche Aircraft’s coming revival of the Dornier Fairchild 328 turboprop with 42-seats and an all-new Garmin G5000 cockpit — the D328eco —  is being designed for single-pilot flying.

While a shortage is driving changes to regional networks, Meijer said the pilot shortage hasn’t affected the business case for its own new regional turboprop in a 50-seat layout for U.S. airlines. There remains a large cadre of Embraer and Bombardier 50-seat aircraft still flying that he said cannot be sustainably made larger. “There’s a huge number of 50-seater jets flying out there that did not get up-gauged. They didn’t get up-gauged by accident, because those routes cannot sustain bigger loads.”

Related: Embraer makes its case for an American turboprop

“The airlines will need to look for a [50-seat] replacement to keep America connected,” he said. “America cannot pull all those aircraft out and leave the smaller cities unconnected to the international network.”

Are the longer-term pilot shortages pushing it to consider single-pilot flying for its new turboprop? “For now, it’s looking like two pilots from the start,” said Meijer.

Write to Jon Ostrower at

Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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  • “…regardless of whether the flying public, labor unions or regulators are ready, the technological foundations for single-pilot operations (SPO) are already being laid today…”

    Technological foundations are laid when the protagonists are convinced that the public, regulators, etc., can be made ready in time. That conviction has to be underwritten by a keen understanding of both, the technology AND an understanding of humans. If either turns out to be inadequate, the technology will fail to deploy.

    Look at the state of autonomous land vehicle technology… We were supposed to have self-driving cars in 2018. Instead, the widespread deployment of the technology seems to be on indefinite hold. It appears that not only did the protagonists seriously overestimate the technology’s ability to substitute for the human functions of perception and reasoning—especially in complex scenarios (requiring prioritization, resolution of contradictions, or ignoring the prescribed) or where data is missing (requiring imagination to fill in the gaps), but they also overestimated the public tolerance for anything less than perfection in machinery that replaces an imperfect human. Add to that the Catch-22: As humans get accustomed to more and more automation, they become less and less competent to monitor, evaluate and intervene when anything goes wrong, thus hindering the beta testing and introduction of the automated technology.

    The hubris over autonomous technology seems to have quietly given way to a humble reckoning of our understanding of the operation and capabilities of the human mind—or lack thereof. In Dec 2017, after the heavily-automated Tesla factory kept missing production ramp-up milestones and had to be fortified with humans to recover, Elon Musk tweeted: “Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

    Some autonomous operations like TCAS appear to have been introduced quite easily. The reality is easily forgotten: the highly structured control system within the relatively protected space where airplanes operate, the complex negotiations between airframe and avionics manufacturers, air traffic controllers and pilots unions—and governments—worldwide, and the period when distrust of the technology or a failure of regulators to impose operational policy led to conflicts between human directives and technology-generated directives, resulting in near-misses, accidents and loss of life.

    The complexity of airplanes, especially their dynamic operating characteristics in 3D and the far, far greater probability and number of fatalities in any incident, together with the improbability of public acceptance of the role of guinea pig means that the technology will have to mature by many orders of magnitude before it will see operational daylight. Which means we need to start looking at humans as something special again—and try to figure them out instead of impatiently trying to substitute for them.

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