Long haul flights currently have up to four pilots
Currently, all commercial flights have from two to four pilots in the cockpit.
- Two pilots is the absolute minimum for any length of flight
- Then for long haul flights there are often one or two relief pilots, who take turns at the controls while the primary captain and first officer are resting; this way one set of pilots can be alert for landing
- As a general rule of thumb, many airlines have three pilots on flights of 8-12 hours, and four pilots on flights of 12+ hours; this varies based on regulations in a particular country, pilot contracts, etc.
Pilot staffing can be expensive, especially on long haul flights, where pilots are paid for the entire flight, even when they’re resting. For example, take a 17 hour Dallas to Hong Kong flight on American Airlines, which has four pilots (this route is suspended right now).
So, what is the buzz all about?
Cathay Pacific is working with Airbus to introduce “reduced crew” long-haul flights with a sole pilot in the cockpit much of the time.
The programme, known within Airbus as Project Connect, aims to certify its A350 jet for single-pilot operations during high-altitude cruise, starting in 2025 on Cathay passenger flights.
High hurdles remain on the path to international acceptance though. Once cleared, longer flights would become possible with a pair of pilots alternating rest breaks, instead of the traditional three or four currently needed to maintain at least two in the cockpit.
What it could do for airlines?
Cathay Pacific has touted the A350 as a type ready for potential reduced-crew operations due to advanced autopilot systems, but airlines have generally been wary of the idea. It operates twenty-seven A350-900s and fourteen A350-1000s, with a further three and four of the respective types on firm order.
That promises savings for airlines, amid uncertainty over the post-pandemic economics of intercontinental flying. But it is likely to encounter resistance from pilots already hit by mass layoffs, and safety concerns about aircraft automation.
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-Cathay Pacific
Commercial implementation would first require extensive testing, regulatory approval and pilot training with “absolutely no compromise on safety”, Cathay said.
Lufthansa is also involved in Project Connect but has no plans to actively pursue reduced-crew operations for its own flights.
FedEx Express is reportedly working with Sikorsky Aircraft to develop procedures for single pilot operations of its Avions De Transport Regionale (ATR) freighters, wherein only a single pilot would be present in the aircraft at all times.
What does the EASA have to say?
Safe deployment will require constant monitoring of the solo pilot’s alertness and vital signs by on-board systems, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has said.
If the flight encounters a problem or the pilot flying is incapacitated, the resting copilot can be summoned within minutes. Both remain in the cockpit for take-off and landing.
Typically on long-haul flights when you’re at cruise altitude there’s very little happening in the cockpit. It makes sense to say OK, instead of having two in the cockpit, we can have one 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.– EASA chief Patrick Ky
Pilot groups haven’t taken well to the idea
We struggle to understand the rationale– Otjan de Bruijn, head of the European Cockpit Association representing EU pilots.
Invoking the 737 MAX crisis, which exposed Boeing’s inappropriate links to U.S. regulators, De Bruijn said the programme’s cost-cutting approach “could lead to higher risks”.
Single-pilot operations, currently limited to planes with up to nine passengers, would need backing from U.N. aviation body ICAO and countries whose airspace they cross. China’s support is key to any Cathay deployment.
Airbus masterplan: Will it work?Only time will tell…
Airbus has designed an A350 autopilot upgrade and flight warning system changes to help a lone pilot manage failures, sources close to the project said. Use of a specially designed unisex toilet would be possible during the shift, in coordination with air traffic control.
The mid-sized plane is suitable because of its “emergency descent” feature that quickly reduces altitude without pilot input in the event of cabin depressurisation.
Proponents suggest single-pilot operations may be accepted by a flying public used to crew leaving the cockpit for bathroom breaks. They also point to higher error rates from human pilots than automated systems.
The bottomline is though, if EASA certifies it, airlines will adopt it.
- simpleflying.com (Cover photo)