Airbus single-pilot plan on long-haul flights is a bad idea - safety over economy

A lot of industries have been hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and, unfortunately, that has resulted in layoffs and even bankruptcies. Those that managed to survive sometimes operate with reduced workforces, including those on sometimes critical operations like long-haul flights. In lieu of that, Airbus and Cathay Pacific are working on a system that will have just one pilot at the cockpit most of the time, a system that seems to be prioritizing savings over passengers' safety and even their own employees' welfare.

To be clear, the program that's internally known as Project Connect will have other pilots onboard, possibly just two at most. They will alternate shifts with one pilot at the helm while the other takes a break. Long-haul flights normally have four pilots available in teams of two that alternate shifts in the same manner.

If approved, this system would allow airlines to operate with even smaller crews, reducing the need for pilots by half while possibly also shrinking the team of flight attendants per flight. This could mean big savings for these companies that are already hurting from the effects of the pandemic on intercontinental travel. Of course, they might be the only ones benefiting from this change.

The current two-pilot system was established based on a system of redundancy. One of the two pilots can take action or take over in case of problems without losing precious time running from a room to the cockpit. Co-pilots can also check on one another for physiological problems or alertness, a process that can be complemented but not really replaced by automated systems that monitor a pilot's vitals through sensors.

There's also a psychological element to having a co-pilot during those long-haul flights. Proponents of the single-pilot program point out how these long flights barely have anything happening in the cockpit after reaching certain altitudes – all the more reason to have someone nearby rather than whiling away the hours alone. Having a single pilot in the cockpit also puts even more pressure on that pilot, which could have psychological ramifications down the line.

There are, of course, anecdotes where human error has caused fatal aviation accidents, but there are also just as many pointing the blame on automated systems. The two disastrous flights involving the Boeing 737 MAX's new MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) are just the latest, but there have been several incidents where either automated systems or resting co-pilots compromised the safety of the aircraft. Lufthansa, who has also been working on this single-pilot program, has no plans to use it and an insider source claims that Airbus isn't able to guarantee that an automated system would be able to handle any situation without a pilot for 15 minutes.

And then there's the fact that the employees of these airlines are themselves already struggling to make ends meet. In the face of massive layoffs, the mere suggestion of halving pilots and flight crews will most likely cause an uproar among their workforce and workers' unions. Passengers might also feel less comfortable on long-haul flights knowing that they have less crew onboard.

All these tests by Airbus and Cathay, however, might be for naught considering the hurdles the single-pilot plan faces. The system will also need not only approval from local regulatory agencies but from international bodies as well. Single-pilot flights need the approval of the UN's ICAO as well as the countries they will fly over, including China.