Airbus is working with the airlines, in a project that could allow single-pilot operations for certain segments of long-haul flights, with its A350.
A few months ago, we saw an Airbus initiative to get an A350 to taxi out, take-off, land and taxi in again. This was the ATTOL project, part of the manufacturer’s ‘Up Next’ series of projects. However, they have now concluded that project. This initiative for single-pilot, long-haul operations is a separate Airbus idea.
Essentially, it works like this: an A350 will take off with two pilots, both of them sitting in the cockpit, as normal. They will taxi out, take-off and get the plane in cruise altitude. Normally, for long trips they would eventually swap seats with one or more other pilots, to rest. But in this new project, they could fly their long-haul trip by taking turns in operating the Airbus single-pilot. The other pilot would simply rest.
Airbus call these limited single-pilot operations “reduced crew” long-haul flights. The manufacturer is working with a number of airlines, like Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa, in a consulting role. And right off the bat, there are some clouds forming: neither airline states that they will adopt the technology. A spokesperson for Cathay Pacific said:
“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 stressed that the rollout of such single-pilot, long-haul Airbus flights would have “absolutely no compromise on safety”. Plus, it would only come after extensive testing. Further, they added:
“The appropriateness and effectiveness of any such rollout as well as (the) overall cost-benefit analysis (will) ultimately depend on how the pandemic plays out.“
Likewise, Lufthansa confirms that they’ve worked with Airbus on this single-pilot, long-haul project. However, they state that they have no plans to use it. From its side, Airbus aims to have this project in a state ready for certification, by 2025. But getting all aviation safety authorities to agree on the necessary factors for certification, will be interesting.
Europe’s Aviation Safety Authority (EASA)’s chief, Patrick Ky, said this last January:
“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.“
The Airbus A350 has some features that should make it a good candidate for single-pilot cruise in long-haul. The aircraft can perform an automatic emergency descent without pilot input, in the event of cabin depressurization. Also, it has the Auto-Pilot/Flight-Director (AP/FD) TCAS mode, that Airbus first certified in the A380.
Airbus is making further changes, specifically for the long-haul, single-pilot in cruise operation. They include a special toilet that pilots could use during their shift, with ATC coordination! The principle is that if the flying pilot has a problem or is incapacitated, the second pilot will have the time to come and take over.
Single-Pilot Long-Haul – Airbus Addressing Concerns
To use such a system, the aircraft would need to have systems that can monitor the vital signs and alertness of the pilot. Today, flight diversions due to a pilot feeling unwell, are not rare. But whereas pilots could have some warning if they have a stomach bug, other health issues are more sudden. It’s difficult to see how Airbus could cover all eventualities in these long-haul, single-pilot phases of flight.
Critics point out that the second pilot could take as much as 15 minutes to wake up and be ready to operate safely. They say that Airbus would have to demonstrate that its systems can handle autonomous flight for that long, without inputs. Pilot groups have also raised concerns, questioning the programme’s benefits, in the overall cost structure of a flight. They also add that the move points to a cost-cutting approach, that “could lead to higher risks”.
More critics point to recent accidents, like Air France AF447 in 2009 over the Atlantic. The triggering event in this incident was a temporary sensor malfunction. Moreover, Airbus would also have to ensure that long-haul operations with single-pilot at cruise, also meet other concerns. In addition to safety, there is also the matter of security, from bad actors onboard.
Again, with the distances involved, a variety of different aviation authorities would have to agree on such a change. Cathay Pacific wouldn’t consider long-haul with single-pilot in cruise, if China doesn’t approve it.
The question is, could the public slowly accept such a system, even if manufacturers can certify it?