A stormy argument is developing in the airline industry over the number of pilots needed in jetliner cockpits. Thousands of jobs are at stake; so are hundreds of millions of dollars in labor costs for financially troubled carriers and a potential of billions of dollars in sales of new planes by aircraft manufacturers.
The immediate threat on the horizon is a possible November strike by airline pilots if air carriers reduce cockpit crews of a new and simpler generation of commercial aircraft from three crew members of two.
The threat of a "withdrawal of services" by the Air Line Pilot Association (ALPA) came after a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to certify a new McDonnell-Douglas plane, the DC-9 Super 80, and permit it to be flown by a crew of two instead of three.
According to Capt. J. J. O'Donnell, president of the ALPA, "crew size looms as the principle point of contention with airline management in the 1980s."
The union says that no ALPA pilot will take the controls of the new Mcdonnell- Douglas jetliner or the Boeing 757 and 767 and the European-built Airbus A-310 unless two other pilots are in the cockpit. The union contends that it is a matter of safety.
Airline officials disagree. "It constitutes featherbedding," says Edward E. Swofford, president of Aloha Airlines Inc., one of the carriers considering the new planes.
McDonnell-Douglas says there is a strong case for two pilots. Previous DC-9s have flown for 15 years with only two and, it contends, the latest "Super 80," while longer and heavier, is so technically improved that the crew's workload actually is 40 percent less than in the older, smaller version.
Boeing supports that position. Looking ahead of the introduction of its two new jetliners, it cites a study that indicates that over an 11-year period, 1968 through 1978, "two-crew airplanes [proved] superior to three-crew airplanes in terms of safety." Boeing speculated that the reason might be, in part, the complacency of crew members with too little to do.
Manufacturers do not control the number of pilots in cockpits; currently carriers have the option of using two or three, and the new planes have space enough for three. The manufacturer's fight with ALPA over the safety of two-pilot crews is defensive; a number of foreign manufacturers are strongly competing with the US companies for sales, offering planes certified overseas as safe for two-pilot operation.
For carriers, the requirement of a third crew member raises operating costs 3 percent to 5 percent. When Western Airlines was required to fly its fleet of 737s with three pilots instead of two last year, its operating costs rose $4 million a year. Aloha and other airlines now flying two-pilot craft say they will cancel orders for any new equipment requiring three-member crews.
The ALPA has challenged FAA certification of the Super 80 within the FAA and in court, primarily because, it says, the plane has not been tested sufficiently. It has had two accidents in testing, not connected with crew size. However the union also contends that "extra eyes" in the cockpit is vital when skies are getting more congested.
McDonnell-Douglas, Boeing, and major carriers say they want no war with ALPA. But they add that "we may have one on our hands since this issue is critical for us."