Airbus, Cathay Pacific Developing Single-Pilot Long-Haul System


Airbus and Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific are developing a system designed to allow for single-pilot, long-haul passenger flights in the A350, according to a report from Reuters. Relying on an increase in cockpit automation, it has been suggested that the system will include features such as an emergency descent mode that does not require pilot input as well as real-time, on-board monitoring of the pilot’s vital statistics and alertness. The program—called Project Connect—is reportedly looking to certify the A350 for single-pilot ops at high-altitude cruise by 2025.

“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 told Reuters. “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.”

If successful, the system could reduce the number of cockpit crew members needed for long-haul operations to just two. Airbus has been working on similar ideas for several years, having launched its Disruptive Cockpit (DISCO) concept, which is aiming to “enable single-pilot operations for new aircraft,” in 2019 and the Autonomous Taxi, Take-Off and Landing (ATTOL) project in 2018. As previously reported by AVweb, ATTOL completed its first fully automatic vision-based takeoff in January 2020.

Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. Of course it’s coming. Not a matter of “if”, but “when.” It’s the natural evolution of the cockpit. You know it. I know it.

    ….. now, where do I plug-in the Krup coffee maker ….. 🙄

    • Given the fabulous record of airlines in the last decade, it’s time to go “semi-autonomous”. Actually, we sort of are, down to the point that autoland has been available for a long time, most nav is push a button and go, etc. I do like to have a pilot on board, but that’s an irrational personal preference.

  2. Just think.
    If there is an engine problem or generator issue while single piloting you won’t have to confirm any items on the checklist. Just read the checklist, do your own response and shut off the fuel lever . Don’t worry about flying the plane. The automation will take care of that for you. And no requirement to manage cockpit resources.
    And we all know, pilots never make mistakes.

  3. If this EVER happens (it won’t) be sure to avoid flying on Cathay. One pilot in the cockpit? Trouble, trouble, trouble. I have 35,000 hours of airline flying behind me and I can tell you unequivocally that one’s flying partner is an integral, necessary and common sense part of a safe flying protocol. Well worth the money, believe it!

  4. As someone stated above the problems with this are obvious. Not a good idea. Wait until the first lawsuit comes up over this in the aftermath of a fatal crash. The media and the attorneys will have a field day with this.

  5. Can any one of you read or comprehend what you are reading?

    Quote: “If successful, the system could reduce the number of cockpit crew members needed for long-haul operations to just two.”

    Even though eventually the single pilot cockpit and ultimately fully autonomous cargo and passenger flights will happen, this is NOT it. Just as the elimination of the flight engineer and the Navigator, the reserve crew member (for extra long flights) is some low hanging fruit for rationalization. Bean counters will always win. And this is just a small step.

    Qantas will look at this, too, if they ever plan to implement Project Sunrise. If the A350 is certified for just two crew members on those flights, Airbus has a distinct advantage over Boeing.

      • Quote: “to certify the A350 for single-pilot ops at high-altitude cruise”

        That is, to allow the second pilot to rest during this usually not that demanding phase of the flight, without having to haul a third pilot around for those time when one of the pilots rests.

        Maybe Kate could phrase the title and some of the sentences a little better, but her posts are usually ignored by the commenters, so she might have taken some editorial liberties, to get the responses going. 😉

  6. Where and when did airline flying start to go downhill? Was it when they got rid of the radio operator or the navigation or the flight engineer? Maybe it was the desk jockeys at Wall Street that wrecked some good airlines; Some of them have a lot to answer for. Then again, Boeing, and Airbus, have not helped either with some disastrous upgrades that have left several planes scattered about the landscape and the oceans. Deregulation has allowed the unwashed to get on board. Not only do they get on board but they bring the kitchen sink with them in baggage. I’m sick and tired of watching unruly passengers on YouTube beating up on each other and crew members. So far, nobody has damaged the thin skin of the aircraft.
    Now, all we need is one pilot, probably a computer geek pilot captain, sinless of course, up in the front guiding the ship. I’m not going, because this is a disaster waiting to happen. I can still dream though; at times I hear Northeast Airlines, ‘Yellow Bird’ song, on the radio, and I think of their medium rare, Filet Mignons, on the way to Bradenton, Florida.
    ‘Wish that I were a yellow bird
    I’d fly away with you
    But I am not a yellow bird
    So here I sit, nothin’ else to do’.
    ‘Fasten your seat belts-Tight- this is not going to be a happy ending. Robots, cross check the doors’.

  7. How soon Airbus has forgotten the past incidents of suicide by pilot when a pilot was alone in on the flight deck. For example: Germanwings 9525, Egypt Air 990, Mozambique 470, The Horizon Q400 incident in Seattle, SilkAir 193, Royal Air 630, and perhaps even Malaysia 370 to name a few. Then again, what am I saying? Automation to prevent pilots from crashing airplanes is the real story here. For example: Ethiopian 302, Lion Air 610, Air France 447, Air France 296, and China Airlines 140.

    • – The Germanwings pilot had been seeing a shrink for years, yet wasn’t dq’ed because of “socialism.”

      – In the Koran, the only certain way to heaven is jihad (or funding jihad), so you can do the math for Egypt Air and Malaysia 370. On-going background checks can reduce this problem (no nightclubbing or other prolonged haram behavior that induces guilt, no radical imam influence)

      – Horizon Q400 was airplane theft.

      The above covers half of the obvious or deliberate pilot errors mentioned.

    • It would be quite easy to totally prevent “excursions” from the flight regime by the pilot. Even with two in the cockpit bad things could happen; just program the thing so that it cannot happen, and it won’t. Perhaps disconnect the controls if something weird occurs.

  8. Careful with terminology.

    It sounds as though the scheme is in cruise stability for hours so one pilot can have a sleep.

    (Which last I understood had to be more than 2.5 hours to avoid grogginess on waking, else just naps less than 40 minutes.)

    There is a question of operational reliability. For example, BA operated one flight a day LHR-SEA with 747-400s, but with an extra pilot I believe (two pilot flight deck on the -400). About 9 hours so within crew duty day limit. What would they do if one RON return pilot became ill while in Seattle so could not fly the return leg from SEA? I presume the third pilot in the RON crew would do the job.

    Of course many flights today are much longer than 9 hours.

    Note some flights will have a third pilot as check/training, I don’t know how often. The third pilot in my BA example could be that, probably a good training route as is in good airspace but with modest oceanic considerations (North Atlantic, Greenland, Canada).

    • Those are a lot of presumptions. As an international pilot I have no idea what your entire last sentence means, as in “good airspace but with modest oceanic considerations” this is not proper international aviation language. But if the flight is 9 hours then the duty day is closer to 13. If one of the 3 pilot became ill on an RON they would not dispatch with one less pilot. That’s what “reserves” are for. Flights longer than 10, 12 or 14 hours in a 2 man cockpit may consist of 4 or even 5 pilots, depending on the airline. Some airlines/countries use fully qualified pilots, others also use “cruise F/O’s” that are only qualified to occupy a pilot seat in cruise and are not take-off/landing qualified.

  9. I’d like to know what they mean by ‘cost-benefit’ (per the Cathay Pacific spokesperson) – if it’s for second pilot to sleep during the high altitude cruise, how much would they save by not paying a sleeping/off-duty pilot? Assuming that’s the case. How much is this really going to save? Or is cert for high altitude cruise ops the first stage in certifying all flight ops for single pilot? Still don’t understand the why.