AINsight: Long-haul Single-pilot Ops Face Turbulence

 - October 22, 2021, 1:11 PM

Cathay Pacific is working with Airbus to introduce a concept that reduces the number of flight crew on long-haul flights. Project Connect, as it's known internally at Airbus, would certify the Airbus A350 for single-pilot operations during the high-altitude cruise phase of flight. Cathay hopes to introduce this idea on long-haul passenger flights beginning in 2025.

The project will likely encounter some turbulence on its path to wider spread acceptance. Regulators must first be satisfied that safety is not compromised. Then passengers will have to come to grips with a single pilot at the controls of an airliner for hours on end.

In a post-737 Max environment, convincing regulators and passengers that automated technology is the best solution won’t be easy.

Airbus said it leverages technology to improve safety and enhance efficiency across its product range. Project Connect would provide a sales advantage for the A350, since rival Boeing cannot compete with its technology.

As an example, Airbus plans to upgrade the A350 autoflight and warning systems for a lone pilot to manage failures. The aircraft is already equipped with an automated feature that initiates a descent without pilot input in the event of a rapid depressurization.  

For Cathay, it is about the money. The airline could increase profits and cut expenses by reducing payroll on its struggling long-haul segments. Today, Cathay rosters long-haul international flights with three to four pilots, it hopes to cut that to just two with Project Connect.

Pilot groups are uneasy with this program. In an interview, Otjan de Bruijn, head of the European Cockpit Association, said, “We struggle to understand this rationale…the program’s cost-cutting approach could lead to higher risks.”

In the U.S., Air Lines Pilot Association (ALPA) president Joe DePete said in an ALPA white paper on this topic that “the most vital safety feature in transport-category aircraft now and for the foreseeable future are two experienced, trained, and rested professional pilots in the cockpit.”

Project Connect calls for both pilots to be in the cockpit during critical phases of flight, but not during the high-altitude cruise phase. Once at altitude, the two pilots would alternate rest breaks.

With one pilot in the bunk, the remaining pilot at the controls would be constantly monitored for alertness and health by onboard systems. In the event of an emergency or medical issue—incapacitation or otherwise—with the pilot flying, the pilot in rest would be notified and summoned to return to the flight deck.

This delay with the other pilot returning to the flight deck has caused some concerns with earlier participants in the project. Critics cite the Air France A330 crash over the South Atlantic as an example where it would be better to have more than one pilot in the cockpit.

During this event, an airspeed sensor malfunction in cruise triggered multiple confusing warnings and the aircraft slowed and entered a deep aerodynamic stall. At the time of the upset, the captain was in rest, and the two remaining pilots lost control of the aircraft, killing all 228 onboard.

These critics also suggest that the aircraft should be capable of flying autonomously for 15 minutes without any input to prevent these accidents. This demand would be hard for Airbus or any other aircraft manufacturer to guarantee.

ALPA always calls for the necessity of multiple pilots in the cockpit to ensure safety and said single-pilot operations are a “risk not worth taking.” In a multi-crew environment, the workload is shared among both pilots.

The U.S. airline pilot association cites events such as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where a highly trained crew worked together in a coordinated manner to safely ditch a crippled airliner after multiple bird strikes.

In addition, routine flights often require adapting an original plan to circumvent weather or accommodate air traffic control—each of these tasks increases the workload on the crew and would be more difficult to manage with a single pilot.

With only one pilot at the controls, others suggest an aircraft may be vulnerable to pilot incapacitation, or the pilot going rogue or committing suicide.

The ALPA white paper cites an FAA report indicating that there were 39 pilot incapacitation events during a recent six-year period. The association also suggests that this number may increase due to an aging pilot population.

From 2002 to 2013, there were eight confirmed cases of pilot suicides where a pilot intentionally crashed their aircraft, killing themselves and all onboard. There were five additional suspected cases during this timeframe.

In 2015, Andreas Lubitz, a copilot on a Germanwings Airbus A320, deliberately crashed his aircraft into the French Alps, killing 150 people. Other tragedies, such as the loss of Malaysia 370—a Boeing 777—remain unsolved.

Public policy and opinion, according to ALPA, do not support single-pilot operations. Current design standards and regulations call for two pilots to fly a transport-category aircraft.

The association has concerns over security, both physical and cyber. There are fears that autonomous aircraft are more vulnerable to hacking by cyber-criminals. Likewise, one less pilot in the cockpit could increase the risk of an intrusion by hijackers or terrorists.

ALPA also suggests that the public is not convinced that single-pilot operations should happen at all. According to ALPA-sponsored surveys, there is little appetite to spend taxpayer money on reducing the number of pilots on the flight deck.

Those surveys point to greater tolerance and acceptance of higher priority projects, such as improving security screening and air traffic control services.

By regulation, transport-category aircraft rely on redundant systems to ensure the highest level of safety. By design, these aircraft have multiple engines, electric generator sources, hydraulic systems, and other backup systems—this philosophy makes air travel the safest form of transportation.

Project Connect calls for removing the single most critical component of this system—the pilot. Each pilot brings years of experience and training to the flight deck and success is only gained from these individuals working together. One less pilot potentially equates to a lower standard of safety for those passengers who trust the air transportation system.

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at stuart.lau3@gmail.com.