EXCLUSIVE Cathay works with Airbus on a single pilot system for long-haul

A Cathay Pacific Airways Airbus A350-900 aircraft approaches to land at Changi International Airport in Singapore on June 10, 2018. REUTERS / Tim Chong / File Photo

  • Cathay and Airbus collaborate on a unique pilot project
  • The program aims for a launch in 2025 on the Cathay A350s – sources
  • Airlines to save on long-haul crew costs

PARIS, June 16 (Reuters) – Cathay Pacific (0293.HK) is working with Airbus (AIR.PA) to introduce long-haul “short-crew” flights with a single pilot in the cockpit most of the time, told Reuters from industry sources. .

The program, known within Airbus as Project Connect, aims to certify its A350 jet for single-pilot operations during high-altitude cruises, from 2025 on Cathay passenger flights, the sources said.

Great obstacles remain in the way of international acceptance. Once cleared, longer flights would become possible with a pair of pilots alternating rest breaks, instead of the three or four currently required to keep at least two in the cockpit.

This promises savings for airlines, amid uncertainty over the post-pandemic economy of intercontinental flights. But it is likely to meet resistance from pilots already affected by massive layoffs and safety concerns regarding aircraft automation.

Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) has also worked on the single-pilot program but currently has no plans to use it, a spokesperson for the German carrier told Reuters.

Cathay Pacific Airways has confirmed its involvement but said no decision has been made on a possible deployment.

“While we engage with Airbus in the development of the concept of short-crew operations, we are in no way committed to being the launch customer,” said the Hong Kong carrier.

Commercial implementation would first require extensive testing, regulatory approval and pilot training with “absolutely no compromise on safety,” Cathay said.

“The relevance and effectiveness of such a deployment as well as (the) overall cost-benefit analysis (will) ultimately depend on how the pandemic unfolds.”

He added: “That said, we will continue to engage with Airbus and support the development of the concept. “

Airbus previously disclosed plans to add single pilot capability to the A350, but the airlines’ involvement was not reported. Work has resumed after the COVID-19 crisis halted the program, said chief test pilot Christophe Cail.

“We have proven over decades that we can improve safety by putting the latest technology on planes,” Cail told Reuters, declining to identify project partners. “As with any design evolution, we work with airlines.”

VITAL SIGNS

A safe deployment will require constant monitoring of the solo pilot’s vigilance and vital signs by onboard systems, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said.

If the flight encounters a problem or if the pilot flying is incapacitated, the co-pilot at rest can be summoned within a few minutes. Both stay in the cockpit for takeoff and landing.

“Usually on long-haul flights, when you’re at cruising altitude, very little happens in the cockpit,” EASA chief Patrick Ky said during a briefing. German press in January.

“It makes sense to say OK, instead of having two in the cockpit, you can have one in the cockpit, the other resting, provided you put in place technical solutions that ensure that if the one falls asleep or has no problem, there will be no unsafe conditions. “

The pilot groups sounded the alarm.

“We find it difficult to understand the rationale,” said Otjan de Bruijn, head of the European Cockpit Association representing EU pilots.

Citing the 737 MAX crisis, which exposed Boeing’s (BN) inappropriate ties to US regulators, De Bruijn said the program’s cost-cutting approach “could lead to higher risks.”

Single-pilot operations, currently limited to aircraft capable of carrying up to nine passengers, would require the support of the United Nations aviation body, ICAO, and the countries whose airspace they traverse. China’s support is key to any Cathay deployment.

EASA is planning consultations this year and certification work in 2022, while recognizing a “significant risk” until the launch date in 2025, a spokesperson said.

During a closed-door briefing with the industry this year, the agency suggested the short-crewed flights would begin with a single operator, according to meeting notes reviewed by Reuters.

EMERGENCY DESCENT

Airbus has designed an upgrade to the A350’s autopilot and modifications to the flight alert system to help an isolated pilot deal with the outages, sources familiar with the project said.

The mid-size aircraft is suitable because of its “emergency descent” feature which quickly reduces altitude without pilot intervention in the event of cabin depressurization.

Proponents suggest that single-pilot operations can be accepted by a flying audience accustomed to the crew leaving the cockpit for toilet breaks. They also indicate higher error rates from human pilots than automated systems.

Both arguments are irrelevant, according to a source close to Lufthansa – who said airline executives were told last year that the program could not meet safety targets.

Flying solo for hours on end is a “whole different story,” the source said, citing the 2009 AF447 disaster as an example of malfunctions occurring while cruising. The co-pilots of the Air France A330 (AIRF.PA) lost control after the failure of its speed sensors over the Atlantic, while the captain was resting.

“Airbus should have ensured that every situation could be managed autonomously without pilot intervention for 15 minutes,” the source said. “And that couldn’t be guaranteed.”

Lufthansa has not pulled out of Project Connect and remains involved as an advisor, its spokesperson said.

Although the airline does not plan to deploy single-pilot operations, he added, “the suggestion that Lufthansa was an essential part of the project and then withdrew is not true.”

According to experts, a single pilot capability would add a selling point to the A350, and rival Boeing does not have an equivalent model with sufficient automation.

Filippo Tomasello, a former EASA official, said savings in payroll and accommodation for long-haul crews would not be lost on airlines.

“COVID could end up accelerating this development as it puts enormous economic pressure on aviation,” Tomasello predicted.

“If EASA certifies this solution, airlines will use it.

Reporting by Laurence Frost Additional reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney Editing by Mark Potter

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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