By Charlotte Seet
Cathay Pacific And Airbus Focusing On Single-Pilot Systems
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific is looking towards working with French aircraft manufacturing giant, Airbus, to innovate a new concept of reducing the number of flight crews needed on long-haul flights, with the idea of a lone pilot operating the flight deck for the majority of the flight time.
The concept is named within Airbus as Project Connect, and it aims to certify its A350 aircraft family for single-pilot flight operations, mainly during the cruising phase when the aircraft would be at high altitudes and relatively void of major weather.
Airbus says that it aims to start the concept as early as 2025 with Cathay Pacific passenger flights.
However, many obstacles will stand in the way, such as rejections on an overall international standard. Once more airlines get onboard with the concept, more long-haul, and non-stop flights can be made possible with just a pair of pilots on rotating rest breaks, instead of the current standard of three or four pilots.
Whilst the concept can promise savings for the airlines, especially when financial difficulties have been reigning ever since the Covid-19 pandemic plummeted airline revenues, but the same cannot be said for pilots. The majority of pilots worldwide are still out of jobs due to the mass layoffs within the aviation industry, and such a concept would only mean lesser job opportunities for them and future pilots. Unions will also need to agree to new procedures, which will not be easy.
There was also the issue raised about concerns of safety, as a single pilot operating the flight deck could mean an increase of workload and pressure to monitor both communications and flight instruments. And should an emergency happen, the time needed for the second pilot to enter the cockpit to help could essentially mean a matter between life and death.
On the other hand, if the concept introduces further advancements in aircraft automation, then there will be safety concerns raised about pilots being too over-reliant on automation systems.
The aircraft manufacturer has disclosed in the past about its ambition to add the single-pilot capability to the A350, but the airlines’ participation had not been reported. Work has resumed after the COVID-19 crisis paused the program, chief test pilot Christophe Cail said.
“We’ve proven over decades we can enhance safety by putting the latest technology in aircraft,” Cail mentioned, though declining to identify project partners. “As for any design evolution, we are working with airlines.”
As for Cathay Pacific, the airline confirms its involvement but said that there were still no decisions yet made on any eventual deployment.
“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,” the Hong Kong carrier said, whilst adding that it will continue to work with Airbus to support the development of the concept.
It has been about two weeks since Cathay Pacific announced the re-opening of recruitment for pilots based in Hong Kong after closing its foreign bases in Australia and New Zealand, although the preference was for locals or permanent residents. Today, the airline announced that non-local pilots based in Hong Kong will be granted visa work permit extensions.
However, the airline mentioned that the government was rejecting visa work permit renewals for non-local cabin crews residing in Hong Kong, and this would evidently lead to a relatively large number of job losses and a problem for Cathay Pacific.
With the given extensions, pilots operating on the Boeing 747 freighter fleets for Cathay Pacific Cargo and training captains will be granted a three-year extension. Pilots operating on the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 fleets will receive only a one-year extension, and those operating on the A330 fleet are granted an even shorter extension of just six months.
The longer extension for pilots operating on the cargo fleet is most likely due to the airline’s current heavy dependence on freighters for revenue, as the pandemic caused a huge decrease in passenger numbers but an increase in air freight numbers.
Even with the re-opening of recruitments and now-granted visa extensions, the national carrier still sees a manpower issue as strict regulations for the hiring process continue to blow off local pilots.
The closure of the regional subsidiary Cathay Dragon last year did result in a large number of pilots having lost their jobs, but the fleet of Cathay Dragon was Airbus A330s and A320s, which means that not a vast number of them will be eligible for the main brand’s recruitment drive. Furthermore, the requirement of needing to be fully vaccinated, as well as the visa extension of just six months would not necessarily be appealing to these pilots.
And as Cathay Pacific lacks a domestic market and as international borders still remain relatively shut, the uncertainty for adequate manpower still remains quite high amidst the financial strains and fluctuating revenue, hence it is understandable as to why the airline would be looking towards a single-pilot operating concept for long-haul flights.