Pontifications: Single-pilot jetliners OK for cargo, not yet for passenger airplanes

By Scott Hamilton

Sept. 26, 2022, © Leeham News: I sat down with Fred Smith, the founder and now executive chairman of FedEx, on Sept. 15 at the US Chamber of Commerce Aerospace Summit. The first article appears here.

The balance of the interview covered a wide range of topics. I’ll summarize them below.

Single pilot

Fred Smith

Airbus proposed the concept of a single-pilot A350 Freighter. Boeing also is floating the prospect of a single-pilot aircraft for its next new airplane. The idea is hardly new. A single-pilot jetliner has been discussed since the 1990s.

The freighters may just lead the way for big jets. FedEx already worked with Sikorsky to allow single-pilot operation in its ATR turboprop freighters, Smith said in an interview with LNA. He’s okay with the idea for the A350.

“I think it’s perfectly fine for freighter operations,” Smith said. “You can buy a TBM [a small. Single engine turboprop] or a small, single-engine passenger airplane and if the pilot is incapacitated, you punch a button, and it lands at the next airfield. So, [a single pilot] is not a problem. We’ve worked with Sikorsky on developing a single pilot ATR. It works fine for cargo operations, as long as you have the capability for the plane in the event of the pilot’s incapacitation to autonomously land. For cargo operations, I think it would be fine.

“The big airplanes, like the Airbus, I think where they’re headed more than anything else is to minimize the supernumerary crews [an extra crew member on long flights]. We have flights of over 12 hours, so you have to have a full augmented crew. You have to have four pilots on it. Between eight and 12 hours, you have to have three. I think what Airbus is thinking about for freighters is for long-distance flying, you would have just one in the cockpit and one supine.”

But Smith doesn’t think a single pilot for passenger operations is ready for prime time. “I’m not talking about passenger operations. And I think autonomous transport operations are a bridge too far. I think you would get a lot of sociological and regulatory pushback. We don’t endorse fully autonomous airplanes. There are some real issues. You don’t want them to become missiles like on 9/11,” Smith said.

Replacing 767F

FedEx has about 150 767 freighters in its fleet. Under emissions standards adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2017, production of the 767F and the Boeing 777-200LRF must cease from 2028. Implementation of the standards is left to the ICAO member governments. The Federal Aviation Administration notified the US industry it plans to adopt the ICAO standards. Boeing wants an exemption from the FAA for the 767F, but there’s no guarantee it will be granted.

The wing spans of the A350, 787, and 777-8F are larger than the 767. The payloads are substantially greater, too, making these airplanes ill-suited for a direct 767 replacement. Ramp space is so tight that Smith said FedEx has so many planes on the tarmac that the airline didn’t even put winglets on the 767.

Boeing is developing a new airplane concept loosely based on the New Midmarket Airplane that CEO David Calhoun shelved in 2020 upon taking office in January. This airplane, roughly the same size as the 767, is a candidate to succeed the 767F. (Boeing is also studying creating a 787F.)

“The 767 is a completely unique airplane the way it exists today. If they do an NMA-based airplane that’s a freighter or if they do something else, then that makes a lot of sense. But at the moment, there’s nothing that really competes with the 767,” Smith said.

Composite Freighter

The A350F is a composite airplane and the 787F would be, too. Airbus developed the A350 using a giant panel design. The 787 is a barrel design. Creating a freighter out of the panel design is easier than for the 787’s barrel. Each airplane is substantially lighter than a metal fuselage aircraft. But there are other issues working against each.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s something that if you bought the A350 or 787, I think you’d have to go with your eyes wide open,” Smith said. “Nobody has even seen what a freighter looks like in 20 years with all composites or the Airbus philosophy. But those airplanes are so efficient because of the weight. The A350 is 75,000 lbs operating empty weight less than a 777-8. It’s more conservative on the Eight. You’ve got the aluminum fuselage and you have the same cargo door advantages off-setting the weight savings.”

A Boeing 777-300ER P2F conversion brings commonality to FedEx’s 777LRF, but it’s 30 feet longer, presenting parking challenges. But converting -300ERs reduces complexity. “Complexity present problems for very, very big organizations.”

Freight demand from 2025

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a sharp rise in cargo demand. But with the pandemic more or less under control, passenger traffic is recovering. Coupled with the Ukrainian war, FedEx last week announced that demand has softened so much, it will park airplanes for an indefinite time. Revenues between Air and Ground will be about $500m and $300m less, respectively, this year.

With international passenger traffic beginning to recover, this, too, impacts FedEx and other dedicated freighter operations.

“The first thing you have to put into the equation is the resumption of widebody passenger service,” Smith said. “Depending on what theatre you’re talking about, these carry a huge amount of freighter across the Atlantic, it’s the majority of the freight. In the Pacific, it was roughly 50-50.

FedEx has two classes of service, Priority, and Economy. The ground service is the same. “But if we have an extra day and the connections make sense, we’ll put it on one of our partner carriers. Our biggest hub is in Charles De Gaulle in Paris,” Smith said.

The trade war with China hurts, too.

“There are some who want to cut off all relations with China. That’s absurd. We’re just hurting ourselves. It’s a lot more likely that we won’t get into a war with China if we’re trading with them. We’re still better off in my opinion trading with the Chinese than not.”

Smith said the Biden Administration should remove the tariffs the Trump Administration imposed. Doing so would improve relations between the US and China. Doing so would also help Boeing, which has only delivered a handful of freighters to China in recent years.

74 Comments on “Pontifications: Single-pilot jetliners OK for cargo, not yet for passenger airplanes

  1. Quote: “Under emissions standards adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2017, production of the 767F and the Boeing 777-200LRF must cease from 2028.”

    That’s not what the regulation says.
    Production may continue for immediate conversion to military derivatives.
    Also, waivers are an option. Boeing argues that 767Fs could temporarily continue to replace older types that consume 40% more fuel.

    • And fuel use and emissions that in fact is the absurdity of the ICAO regulation.

      the Majority of those aircraft are in fact passenger to freight conversions.

      While the new build F market is a nice adder to Boeing (or eventually Airbus maybe) it in fact is relatively few total, in the US we would call that it does not amount to a hill of beans.

  2. I think it could have been a smarter investment if Boeing had invested a few Billion in 767 re-engining out of the $43B for stock buy backs since 2013.

    If Boeing in the next decade develops a NMA version to also carry ~45-50t cargo payload, like a 767, it’s probably going to be a bulky, heavy aircraft that wouldn’t compete well with lighter designs like A321/322 for ~250 passengers. It would be more close to e.g. a 787-8.

    I think Airbus could developed an optimized capacity/length A330NEO-F with reduced span. Or a new carbon, smaller wing for medium applications (like A310) . But that’s’ another story.

    • Most likely Boeing will avoid competing with the a321/a322 directly. The 797 could seat around 260-270 in a single class , while the larger varient could seat around 290 MAX PAX.

      I think Boeing could develop the 797 alongside the 737 replacement just like the 757/767 development. The 737 replacement could be a single aisle that replaces the max8 and max10 . The Max10 replacement could compete with the a321/a322 directly.

      The a330 shrink , I don’t think it could be competitive enough against a proposed 797. Shrinks have never sold well

        • Yes , but the airplane that replaces it now doesn’t . The a330-800 has only 15 orders.
          Airbus offered the a350-800 as a shrink to the 900 but it had a limited appeal compared to the 787-9, it eventually got cancelled

          the 737max 7 and the a319neo are also shrinks and have very poor sales .

          shrinks in general are not really appealing to airlines , the a332 is a special case,

          • The A350(XWB) line was announced as a range of bespoke Twins each with comparable range. ( I have a feeling that the 800 was a bit of a distraction ( oh, just a 787 lookalike .. )

            The true shrinks from Airbus ( A319, A332 ) were IMHO successes.
            Both provided for 50% of deliveries in their family for quite some years.
            Both types exceeded some “magic raange” over their larger family member(s).
            With the NEO upgrade that selector has vanished. They still exist in NEO form but are niche filling products, with lowish effort created.

      • Some think an Airbus 757-300 will compete very well. I can’t wait to find out.

      • Shrinks dont compete well very often is because the wings are kept the same and becomes too big for the shrunken size. If airbus does a shrink A332, it will essentially be the A300neo and it will need a different set of wings, probably class 4 wing, only then it will be competitive.

      • If Boeing makes a 797 significantly bigger and heavier than a hypothetical 250 seat A322NEO (OEW 56t), it will be at a disadvantage from day one, US Transcon, Intra Europe and Intra China/India. I think Boeing isn’t dominant and now can’t afford such a miss calculation.

  3. «It’s a lot more likely that we won’t get into a war with China if we’re trading with them.»

    Sure. On the other side, that’s exactly what they thought regarding Russia in Germany, France and so on. In Germany the long term strategy for Russia was “Wandel durch Handel” (Change through trade). Didn’t work out very well. Now they judge this strategy as a mistake.

    • Is BA ready to give up say 20% of the market and leave it to its main competitor?? Oh well ….

      • Can Boeing control the current administration policy toward China? Toward Taiwan?

        • Guido hits it on the head.

          Fred Smith is talking what it means to FedEx which is huge in China. They in fact deliberately moved their Asian ops center from the Philippines to China.

          • What does it mean to FedEx/UPS?? What does it mean to BA?
            A new jet program? New freighters?? Time to kiss goodbye to them.

        • BA does not shy from pressuring for an extension of certification deadline for the MAX 10. Big corps know where their interests lie.

      • Question: “Is Boeing ready to give up 20% of the market and leave it to main competitor?”

        Answer: It already has. At time of McD merger in 97 Boeing had about 60% share, down to about 40% now.

        But I’m sure you meant, is Boeing willing to give up an ADDITIONAL 20% market share.

        Answer: Yes. Afterall, what’s the current market share of McD?

    • “In Germany the long term strategy for Russia was “Wandel durch Handel” (Change through trade). Didn’t work out very well. Now they judge this strategy as a mistake.”

      Which is solely due to US full spectrum sabotage driven by angst.

    • @Guido

      I think you have to step back and think about things, for a second.

      What would a war between China and the US look like?

      If it’s a full escalation, then that’s the world. Not going to happen.

      If it’s over Taiwan, well than China better get to building landing craft to cross the body of water that separates the two of them. There’ll be no invasion until then. Also; I’m thinking China is having a close look at Russia and what has happened there. Which leads me to:

      The Economic Situation.
      Russia is crippling itself over Ukraine and will end up far worse, than when they started. China needs the world to buy it’s products, specifically the shoppers paradise; America.

      You don’t kill relations with your best customer. China has over a billion mouths to feed and crucially – many of them have had a taste of middle class life. They are no longer peasants in the fields. There are over 6 million millionaires in China…and growing.


      China is also benefitting by being the middleman in the Russia invasion crisis. Why mess up a good thing, as a weaker Russia is better for China?

      Many US companies make their profits off the back of cheap, off shored products and services in China. Hello there, Walmart!

      As well:

      “China is expected to become the world’s largest maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market with a projected value of $23 billion by the end of 2030. ”


      As well, China is using 1) The Taiwan situation and 2) The Tariff situation – to take advantage of their own C919 program. Every month that goes by, without the Max in service, is another month closer that Comac is to getting their domestic made aircraft in service.

      IIRC Boeing is still delivering (when production is not halted) their 787’s and 777’s to China, yes? The Chinese finance companies are still delivering Max’s to customers outside of the mainland, right? What does this point to?

      It’s all about a domestic NB aircraft program…

  4. Scope 3 emissions under the ESG requirements are what will do the most damage to the airline and airliner industry going forward. The implications of this legislation (if realised) are not even on the radar of most industry participants let alone observers but they are profound and far reaching. When I mention Scope 3 to anyone in the industry their eyes just glaze over, most haven’t even heard the term before.

    As if the [pan]demic wasn’t enough – you ain’t seen nothin yet until (when) this kicks in.

  5. The pilot pushes button if he becomes incapacitated.

    I don’t think this is a bright idea.

    What if the pilot passes out or becomes incapacitated before he can push the button?

    It spells disaster for the aircraft and people on the ground.

    It is also very dangerous to have a large aircraft flying nilly willy about the skies with no one flying it.

    • @Mars Frank

      Totally agree!
      All these CEO’s look at is the cost factor and not the safety factor. Sometimes I really don’t think these people think rationally saying things like “all they have to is push a button” and the airplane lands itself. Think about this happening in a heavy traffic area such as LAX or ORD and the pilot pushes this button….. so just how will ATC react? Yet alone impacts to other traffic unaware of what’s going on.

      Yeah all the pilots on the doomed mad max flights had to do was push a button….
      Single pilot is all about following the money.

      Safety be damned.

      • @William

        I’m well versed on how Cirrus aircraft functions.
        But let’s be clear, on the cirrus the pilot or even the pax must be cognizant of their focal factor to activate the parachute. You just don’t ‘push a button’

        Scenario: pilot loses engine, activates the parachute in a heavily populated area, airplane then crashes on top of some poor unaware souls home and everyone dies.
        Then the lawsuits go wild.

        Safety be damned.

          • The reality is that a hit the button is a hit or a miss.

            What you can do is if you have a passenger (often) you can tell them what to do.

            The other option is hit the button and you deploy a parachute which is not going to work on large aircraft.

    • If there is a reliable automatic landing function, I think it would not be too complicated to have this kick-in automatically, if there have not been any inputs from the pilot side and/or the remaining fuel is reaching a certain threshold.

      Like trains having a dead-man switch, it could be a button that the pilot has to push every hour or so.

      Not saying it’s a simple solution, but the automatic landing one should definely be more challenging.

      • And your pilot slumps into the Yoke or jerks the side stick and its a legitimate command?

        And if you look at the flight issues its often task overload even for two pilots.

        Or, the F pilot gets in trouble and he pushes the button just so it can land because he can’t. Love it. Sorry Fred, I mean its only a 10 million dollar hit (and yes that is what I was told one dark and stormy night when they took the Flight Simulator back to get a pilot to an MD-11 as the assigned one had gotten sick.)

  6. ‘Smith said the Biden Administration should remove the tariffs the Trump Administration imposed. ‘

    If he does that, then he’ll get hammered and voted out of office by being seen as ‘weak’ on China. Sorry GOPers, your guy started the whole mess, this is something that you will have to clean up – if you get the chance.

    Two takeaways:

    1) FedEx last week announced that demand has softened so much, it will park airplanes for an indefinite time.

    – Everyone thought that the cargo boom was here, forever. That turned quickly…

    2) (on the single pilot) “I think it’s perfectly fine for freighter operations,” Smith said.

    – A way to halve pilot costs? What’s not to like, when you’re the CEO. Share buybacks for all!!!

  7. I expect an intermediate position t I be adopted….. I can see large aircraft remaining nominally 2 pilot operations with the second pilot being virtual and ground based. This would leverage talent and reduce the pilot staffing issues as the 2nd pilot could be the “Safety Pilot” on more than one flight. We have drones circling the world being flown completely virtually, backing up to a single pilot manned+augmented crew seems a small jump as all the parts are already there. Adoption on freighter aircraft should be quite straightforward. The real issues are probably related to the insurance companies view of the risk…..

    • ‘The real issues are probably related to the insurance companies view of the risk….’

      Winner, winner. Chicken Dinner!

      On a related point:

      The FAA has been seen as being soft on BA, given the Max crashes. Do they really want to start putting less pilots in aircraft, seeming to bow to financial pressures (after all, this is all about saving money, no?) once again?

      Drones don’t launch lawsuits…

    • Or do as the CEO stated and start with the ATR fleet. Which would really help the segment that badly needs some financial relief. The commuter and regional airlines. If not more small cities will loose air service.

      • William:

        He is talking F ops not PAX ops so it does nothing for the regional loss of air transport.

        And often there is a airport that has the Ops not that far away. Alaska is an exception where there are few roads and the majority of the bush communities are not on a road.

        • @ Transworld,

          I know he is talking about freight, but for pax operation, if single pilot certification is to grow past 9 pax aircraft, then start will a larger regional , such as the 30-50 pax category, than a large narrowbody.

  8. Isn’t autonomous driving being sold as safer than human? Its why the push for autonomous over the road trucking and railroads. So it not also apply to aviation?

    When the flight engineer went away, many stated it would make flyer unsafe, well we see that is not true. Is this the same?

    Personally, I have my doubts, but since most Tesla owners ( I have friends and family that owns them) swear by it, must be the future.

    • @William

      There are so many good reasons why the 2nd officer position was eliminated in commercial airliners. Cockpit automation is a Godsend and has actually increased the safety factor exponentially.
      The engineers should be applauded.

      But! What’s the main key human factor taught to pilots today about this automation? If you don’t know, then you shouldn’t be commenting.
      As for Tesla, I see it all the time of these idiots in heavy traffic reading books, doing their makeup. But what does the owners manual stress when using the automation when driving? More importantly, what do the insurance companies say?
      People get so complacent with technology.

      Safety be damned.

      • “What’s the main key human factor taught to pilots today about this automation? If you don’t know, then you shouldn’t be commenting.”

        Such an open ended question, I ask 5 airline pilots , I will get 5 different answers. Imagine most will state to be aware, aware, aware of what the system is doing. From Autopilot engagement at 1500 ft to disengagement near landing.

        • We don’t have the data on accident rates but the complexity of cars and the environment means you need both a good system and a Cray Supper Computer to run it.

        • @William

          Bingo! Good answer. Tesla doesn’t bother to teach drivers about the safety of using their AP. We get a stupid ticket if not wearing a safety belt, but using the AP or even being on the mobile phone and not aware isn’t a problem. Well ok, inattentive driving is a violation.

          And all modern commercial aircraft alert the flight crews about abnormal conditions…called Flight Deck Affects, except the mad max.

  9. Talking about planning ahead, their 767s are relatively new, but they are already looking at possible replacements. The wingspan restriction is based on Memphis, but one would think 20 years from now FEDEX will have another super hub be it Indy or another city and relieve Memphis which would allow for larger aircraft wingspans.

    • William:

      You have to wonder why UPS does not have that so called winglet issue? They do have winglets.

      My take is that its the fact that FedEx uses the 767 exclusively regio0nal and shorter flights and it does not pay. UPS uses their 767s for overseas longer distance flights (about 33% of UPS flights going through Anchorage are 767)

  10. Forget it, having less pilots on a freighter makes no logical sense.
    You care about losing 400 people on an airliner, but not 400 people in the ground or another airliner?

  11. Having just one pilot in a cockpit facilitates those who may want to deliberately crash a large aircraft.
    Sure, a Cessna can also be deliberately crashed, but it has minimal impact compared to a fully laden A350.
    There are plenty of airports where a pilot can deviate from a flight path and strike a large building within a minute.

      • Difference between possibility and probability.
        Same with AoA inputs.

        And we’re still waiting on the official crash report, aren’t we? The pilot suicide narrative certainly suits BA, so it deserves to be treated with reservation…

  12. On a bigger aircraft, if the aircraft sees / measures the pilot might be incapacitated, it starts doing checks, warning the second pilot who is resting, or other crew onboard, give ATC a signal. Ultimately landing the aircraft at a suitable airport, if nothing else works.

    For longer flights, this single pilot development is more about two instead of three crew members on board. With one in the cockpit while the other takes a nap in the middle of the flight.

    • Having seen a lot of crashes and near misses with two pilots awake I am finding that hard to fathom a sleeping pilot being a benefit.

      Oh by the way, you are sleeping so you get 1/4 pay.

      Why would you not have them in the seat? Maybe you can do the Colonoscopy thing where they put you under and then feed you a wake up drug if an emergency takes place?

  13. Automatic landing it wouldn’t be alway possible due to airport characteristics or weather, I’m wondering how the computer will decide what to do. Also an incapacitated person can’t push anything and in the small Cirrus the passenger will do it.
    Who is going to correct the single pilot mistakes?
    How a single pilot will build his flying experience not having anyone to learn from?
    Reducing the costs… I believe it is more to reduce the impact in the coming years for the lack of pilots.
    For many years the industry of aviation is fighting to highlight the importance of CRM and focused on multi crew and now what? They want to say sorry it was all a joke we go back to the single pilot. Pretty ridiculous and more this will find the opposition of almost any pilot that has a brain out there.

    • For early 707’s as late as 1974 the fourth officer was a Navigator / relief pilot. All four cockpit crew had pilot certificates, ATP ratings, Navigation certificates and type ratings as B707 Second Officers. Even the Flight Engineers.

      Still they weren’t any safer than todays flights. Technology, ATC, training, HRM, automation moved on. I’m sure safety requirements, redundancy’s and emergency scenario’s will be respected in any new minimum crew requirements.

      • Frank:

        You just do not see the big picture. With a single pilot you don’t have to worry about CRM breakdown!

        How about you pay pilots to train for the position? They did it back in the 50s. Actually there is some that are now.

        Will this force a move to wide body for short and medium haul as you can get 2 or 3x the people moved with only two pilots?

        Maybe Boeing is onto something with a wide body single aisle.

        I know Alaska Airlines cut flights as they had (have) pilot issues.

    • Not that I would want to fly (as a passenger) a single pilot aircraft. But in the military, aircraft have been flying for years with one pilot only and pilots seem to manage the workload just fine. So I guess it must be possible.

  14. if wingspan is such an issue, does this not point to a 787-3F? the primary purpose of that design was to fit in D gates (same as 767) for shorter (<3500 NMI) ops.

    lose some weight, fit in a smaller space? I would be surprised if they hadn't planned (and at least mostly designed) an F version of the -3

    • Interesting idea. A lot of the design work was done or even finished.

      Or a -3 with Winglets. They don’t take up that much excess space the longer wings.

  15. I suspect you have seen the last non-folding wing for wide body aircraft. The advantages of high aspect ratio wings on cruise drag far outweigh the added complexity. The gate footprint is a big deal. Any replacements for 767 sized aircraft needs to fit in the existing gates as larger gates are in far shorter supply. It makes less sense to use an inefficient airplane as a baseline for a freighter than to use a high aspect ratio wing with far better performance and release the designers from span design limitations. The case for folding wings on single aisle aircraft is murkier as the stage lengths may not benefit from the cruise drag reductions vs the increased weight.

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