From the very beginning, the aviation industry has considered the safety of the crew and their passengers a top priority.
When commercial flights started moving passengers over long distances, around the 1950s, taking a look into the flight deck meant finding five people working there: the captain, the first officer, a radio operator, a navigator, and a flight engineer. All of them with different responsibilities aimed at ensuring a safe and comfortable flight.
However, this has evolved together with the airplanes and their technical solutions, and it is now commonplace to see a cockpit crew consisting of three to four pilots alternating rest breaks during long-haul flights.
Yet, a new change is in the making. Beginning in 2021, Cathay Pacific Airways confirmed a partnership with Airbus to develop a single pilot system for long-haul flights, a project called Project Connect. However, the idea has created a lot of controversies with many, especially pilots, speaking against it and complaining that there has been secrecy behind the project.
Join us by reading below as we share more details about the idea of Cathay Pacific and Airbus on single-pilot operations.
Cathay Pacific Airways long-haul flights
Cathay Pacific is a Hong Kong carrier covering different routes, and this includes long-haul operations. The airline currently offers connections to several destinations in regions such as:
China – Mainland, Macao, Taiwan regions
But what exactly are long hauls?
What is considered a long-haul flight?
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) defines a long-haul flight as “any flight, or series of flights where passengers and their luggage are not fully disembarked, involving commercial air transport of passengers and lasting 6 hours or more, measured from the time the aircraft is scheduled to move from its parking position at the beginning of a (series of) flight, to the time the aircraft is scheduled to reach its parking position at the end of a (series of) flight.”
If we consider the 6-hour minimum for a flight to be considered long haul, it is clear that Cathay Pacific operates many of these since it connects Hong Kong with destinations like Toronto, and London, among others. And the airline has recently announced they will be operating the world’s longest flight between New York and Hong Kong while evading Russian skies, for a distance of more than 16,600km and a total flight time of 17 hours and 50 minutes.
Now, the question is why would they strive for single-pilot operations on such a long flight?
Cathay working on a system for long haul flights
The truth is that Cathay Pacific Airways is one of the many organizations that have suffered greatly from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the industry. As expected, airlines have looked for different ways to reduce their costs and improve their profitability. And single-pilot operations are one of the solutions that have been considered.
Single pilot operations
The idea for the reduced crew operations between Cathay Pacific and Airbus involves the certification of the A350 jet for single-pilot operations at high-altitude cruise, starting in 2025 on Cathay passenger flights, according to sources quoted by Reuters.
Airbus has been developing the system since before the pandemic, and while they have mentioned airlines’ participation, they have not offered any names.
On the other side, Lufthansa is known to have worked on the single-pilot program, but a spokesman for the German carrier told Reuters they currently have no plans to use it.
Similarly, Cathay mentioned, “While we are engaging with Airbus in the development of the concept of reduced crew operations, we have not committed in any way to being the launch customer”.
Let’s take a look at the single pilot system now.
Single pilot system
The single-pilot system will introduce different technical solutions to allow the sole pilot to control different aspects of flying without the need for a second pilot.
In essence, the single-pilot system takes away the need for more than two human pilots to be available at the same time. This means a reduced crew can have only one pilot in the cockpit and another resting, so there will be two pilots alternating rest breaks instead of three or four as usual.
In addition, it requires implementing technical solutions. Among them, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) mentioned constant monitoring of the solo pilot’s alertness and vital signs by onboard systems would be required.
EASA chief Patrick Ky told a German press briefing in January that “we can have one (pilot) in the cockpit, the other one taking a rest, provided we’re implementing technical solutions which make sure that if the single one falls asleep or has any problem, there won’t be any unsafe conditions.”
Of course, this will require a high level of aircraft automation to increase single pilot capability. Among the systems that can achieve this goal, we can mention some that Airbus has been developing aside from their Project Connect.
For example, Airbus designed an autopilot upgrade and flight warning system changes for their A350 to help a lone pilot manage failures, industry sources told Reuters.
Safety concerns arise
Considering that the system for the long haul will be used for intercontinental flying and not only flights with up to nine passengers which is so far the limit to deploy single-pilot operations, it is natural to see safety concerns arise.
Regarding the pilot system for long hauls, the president of the European Cockpit Association, Otjan de Bruijn, said “we struggle to understand the rationale.” And the fact is that pilot input has not been part of the development of the pilot system for long hauls since they have been making very strong statements against the idea.
In a recent tweet, the European Cockpit Association (ECA) shared how Board Director Tanja Harter addressed the topic in during an interview by saying “removing a pilot from the flight deck is removing the safety net”.
Other examples can be found on LinkedIn.
While EASA chief Patrick Ky said “typically on long-haul flights when you’re at high altitude cruise there’s very little happening in the cockpit,” the truth is that EASA planned consultations in 2021 and certification work in 2022 while acknowledging “significant risk” to the 2025 launch date, a spokesman said to Reuters.
Also, although Airbus Chief Test Pilot Christophe Cail told Reuters in 2021 “we’ve proven over decades we can enhance safety by putting the latest technology in aircraft”, a source close to Lufthansa also said, “Airbus would have had to make sure every situation can be handled autonomously without any pilot input for 15 minutes, and that couldn’t be guaranteed.”
The largest airline pilot union in the world, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), sent out a statement in 2019 about the dangers of single-pilot operations calling the idea “premature” and based on “many costly and unproven technologies”. They made clear their view that “the most vital safety feature in transport-category aircraft now and for the foreseeable future (is) two experienced, trained, and rested professional pilots in the cockpit.”
Cathay working with Airbus: Current status
It seems that either the secrecy continues or the Airbus has had a difficult time identifying project partners or getting any of them to become the launch customer due to the impact of the statements from pilot groups. When looking at their websites and social media, there’s nothing said about the long-haul crew reduction, neither from Cathay nor from Airbus, so the current status of the project remains uncertain.
Add the fact that international acceptance is yet to be confirmed, and it becomes difficult to see when the eventual deployment could take place, especially with U.N. aviation body ICAO and countries whose airspace would be crossed under these conditions having an important vote for it.
Other concerns include mass layoffs that may come as a result of the crew reductions. However, this may not become a reality since a shortage of pilots is looming.
It is clear that high hurdles remain although the cost-benefit analysis favors pilots flying solo with automated systems. Especially with many factors such as the pandemic impact putting tremendous economic pressure on the airlines around the world.
Despite working with Airbus to add single pilot capability, Cathay’s deployment of long-haul operations under such conditions may still encounter resistance from EU pilots and many more around the world.
What might be worrisome for the Asia Pacific airline is that there are some that think the effect of the pandemic on it is long-term.
Some days ago, Emirates President Tim Clark suggested that Cathay Pacific might no longer be counted among the major flagship airlines that facilitate long-haul travel, which may be contradictory if the airline is still collaborating with Project Connect.
Tim Clark said “Looking at the future, the incumbents today will still be there. You’ll still have a Thai [Airways] International, you’ll still have a Qantas, and you’ll still have Malaysia. You may or may not still have Cathay Pacific; of course, that’s anybody’s guess.”
On the bright side, he also believes that the market Cathay Pacific specializes in will return to its former strength.
In any case, we will have to wait and see the outcome of Cathay’s longer flights.
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A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.
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