A highly contentious and dividing topic that generates various reasons and viewpoints that support both the reasons for and against having at least 2 persons in the cockpit at all times. On one hand many believe that there should always be the presence of two people in the cockpit at any one time, with at least only one of them being an on-duty pilot during cruise/ non-critical phases. On the contrary, there are supporters of there only having to be one pilot in the cockpit at any one time, during cruise/non-critical phases of flight and there are even some calling for single-pilot operations full stop.
On many passenger/cargo flights with just two active pilots, it is quite common for a pilot to briefly relieve themselves from active duty during a non-critical phase of flight, whether it is to get some refreshments, visit the restroom or simply go for a ‘walkaround’ to stretch the legs. During this time, it is normal for the other pilot to be alone in the cockpit, managing the systems, maintaining radio communications and isn't usually longer than a few minutes and is done outside of any periods of high workload or demand.
During a flight, the cabin crew are busy with the inflight service and thus it wouldn’t prove commercially viable to take a crew member away from duty and ask them to sit in the cockpit every time a pilot wishes to take a quick break. It could mean that the cabin service is slowed down and customer service is not being delivered to the highest of levels due to being one member down and also increasing the workload of the other crew members. Resolving this by increasing the crew compliment by one member in order to compensate, might seem viable, however for the sake of just a few minutes during the flight, especially when the break might even be taken after the service has been finished, it may prove unnecessary from a scheduling and HR point of view.
As we all know, aviation is an industry where safety is at the centre of everything. Safety of the crew, passengers and aircraft, as well as those on the ground are considered priority when it comes to day to day operations and is ingrained in the very fabric of our nature. One of the main ways this is achieved is via redundancy and backup of systems, whether they may be primary or secondary systems, or even equipment and flight planning. This is a consideration of the SHELL and the ‘Swiss Cheese’ model, which stands for; Software, Hardware, Environment, Liveware, Liveware. The model combines the Flying subsystem with the Human subsystem, showing all of the components that are conducive to flight operations. The human subsystem is the Liveware + Liveware and comprises the pilots and crew, as well as those on the ground such as ATC. The ‘Swiss Cheese’ model is an analogy for stopping errors from developing over various stages, with the aim of preventing an error early on so that it doesn't develop into something more sinister down the line and possibly leading to catastrophe. So the question is, if the flying subsystem is built to include redundancy, then definitely the human subsystem should include that too, because after all humans aren't invincible or flawless and should be treated as such.
Pilot incapacitation is a rare but real threat. Most commercial airliners are designed to be multi-pilot aircraft and so the optimal operative environment is just that, with multiple crew members at the helm, actively monitoring and managing the aircraft at all times. If a sole pilot, on break cover, in the cockpit falls unconscious, there is still the autopilot engaged and so won't be an immediate threat, however, if the pilot falls onto the controls thus disengaging the autopilot, then the situation takes a nefarious turn. This is not the end of the world as such, as crew can still enter the cockpit using an emergency code and rectify the situation, however, there is a time delay followed by a few second window in which the door unlocks, which if you miss for a multitude of reasons, there is another delay of around 2 minutes (aircraft dependent) before the code can be entered again. Just imagine the aircraft is in a steep dive over mountainous terrain and you have to wait for 3 minutes...I'm guessing that wait will be very harrowing - every second counts. However, if there was already break cover in the flight deck then the situation would be different.
A critical event could happen at any time of the flight and the Startle Response during this event can temporarily incapacitate a pilot, thus losing precious time depending on the severity of the situation. Studies show the startle factor can last up to around 60 seconds from the onset of the stimuli, during which the pilot in focus’s senses are “frozen”, thus not being able to act in full compos mentis. This is especially the case during periods of low stimulation, such as the non-critical cruise phase. Conversely, there could also be a tendency to act in haste and rush into a reaction which could later prove to be a poor decision. There have been many cases of the startle factor being the cause/catalyst in a serious aviation incident. When there is more than one pilot in the cockpit, if a situation arises where one pilot becomes startled, the other pilot can regain the pilot in focus’s attention and bring their focus back to the situation, regaining all senses. Most of the time, critical situations don't require an immediate response - the reason why pilots are trained to “sit on their hands”, analyse the situation and react in a sensible and informed manner, eliminating the risks of a rushed action. However, there are some situations, such as inflight wake turbulence or stalls etc, whereby a quick reaction is needed. A notorious incident was a Challenger business jet being caught in the wake of an A380 at 34,000ft over the Middle East, causing it to flip upside down between 3-5 times. Had it not been for the pilot’s quick reaction, there would no doubt have been fatalities. Imagine a time critical scenario where a passenger airliner becomes caught in a wake, with just one pilot in the cockpit as the other is out on a walk around, and something like that happens causing the pilot to succumb to startle, with no one present to recentre their focus back.
Mental health issues in pilots is a taboo issue within the industry, which is however steadily starting to gain focus and attention. Although pilots have an extensive physical checkup every 12 months, in order to keep the Class 1 Medicals current, there are no checks for psychological health. I'm sure we have all heard about the horrible incident which occurred in 2015, where the pilot of a European airline was found to have initiated a Controlled Flight Into Terrain, deliberately crashing a passenger airliner, with 150 people onboard, into the Alps. It was understood that the First Officer was suffering from serious and long standing mental health issues which he did not disclose to his airline or colleagues. At the time, the Captain was out of the cockpit on a break, leaving his First Officer alone in the cockpit as per normal procedure. It wasn't until he went to return that he realised that his First Officer was denying the entry code, thus locking the Captain out of the cockpit. The cockpit voice recorder which was recovered from the wreckage, had audio footage in which the Captain can be heard frantically banging on the cockpit door, emotionally begging and pleading with the first officer to open the door, joined by the excruciating screams and cries of the onlooking passengers who had just realised the severity of the situation they were now trapped in. It is no surprise that the specific nature of this event sent shockwaves through the aviation community and far beyond into the general public, with many people worried about boarding an aircraft and leaving their lives in the hands of the human beings at the front. If one wishes to speculate, then if there was a second crew member inside the cockpit, then one could argue the situation may have turned out differently. History within this industry has seen various examples of attempted pilot suicide, some successful and some unsuccessful. With the ever increasing stresses put on pilots, from within the industry and general life, this is a situation that must be addressed and given utmost importance and consideration - naivety, denial and ignorance can prove to be fatal.
We have looked at both sides of the coin and analyze the implications of each. Humans are not perfect, just like technology and so if we choose to put maximum effort and focus into ensuring aircraft are technically optimal and safe, with proactive and ongoing monitoring, maintenance and research, then the human factor which is incharge of operating them should be given just as much care and attention. It doesn't mean that if a colleague is having a bad day and is tired/grumpy, that they have a worrying ulterior motive. We are all humans with emotions and can't be expected to be jolly and bouncy 100% of the time, especially towards the end of a block and a few sectors down, but covering all bases may not be such a bad idea. After all, as many past situations across various areas of life have shown, only one anomaly needs to slip through the data net for there to be a catastrophe.
Airlines adopting strict procedures and sacrificing a crew member from service for a few minutes to cover a cockpit break may just prove to be worth it on that very rare occasion something sinister occurs. It is understood that some airlines already adopt such a procedure, whereby if a pilot wishes to take a break, they must first call a crew member into the cockpit and once they have entered, only then can the pilot exit the cockpit - Something which more, if not all airlines could adopt.
Cabin Crew currently receive basic training on how to deal with pilot incapacitation, which involves removing a pilot off the controls, locking the seat and removing the pilot from their seat if the situation dictates. Possibly more can be added to this element, such as basic radio communications and overview of cockpit controls - a cost which may one day prove to be worth it, if not just to put passengers' minds at ease.
The purpose of this article is not to scare or deter people from flying, as it is still, statistically, by far the safest form of travel. It is intended to engage those within the industry and provoke serious thought, to consider potential dangers and incorporate effective measures, as we all work together in making this safe and efficient industry even safer.
Thank you for reading,