March 2. 2024. 3:27

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European regulator rules out single-pilot flying by 2030


Europe’s aviation regulator has ruled out an industry push to allow planes to be crewed by just one pilot by 2030 but said it is considering allowing limited single-person operation for parts of flights as early as 2027.

The regulator is weighing a pitch from European planemakers Airbus SE and Dassault Aviation SA for solo flying in the cruise phase, which is less demanding than take-off and landing, when at least two pilots would still have to be in the cockpit.

The proposal included such limitations as barring pilots with medical conditions or too few hours of experience from being solo in the cockpit, Andrea Boiardi, a manager with the regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), told Reuters, revealing previously undisclosed details.

The aviation industry wants solo flying to help ease a challenging labour shortage, since the relaxation of regulations would allow pilots to rest during long-haul trips without replacements being aboard.

However, Boiardi said an earlier proposal from the industry for totally single-pilot flying by 2030 was “absolutely not realistic”, because automation had not advanced far enough and solo flying required a level of safety equivalent to existing operations.

Solo flying, even in cruise, needs approval from the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation, individual airlines and their pilot unions. The UN agency is expected to begin studying the issue early this year.

Boiardi said only the most advanced planes, equipped for a higher level of safety than required by minimum certification standards, could be used for solo flying in cruise. They would include Airbus A350s and potentially Boeing 787s and 777Xs.

EASA was seeking input on the matter from airlines and pilots in a process expected to wrap up in March, Boiardi said in the first in-depth interview EASA has given on the subject.

Pilots alarmed over Airbus plans for single-pilot aircraft

Improvements in automation technology may soon eliminate the need for a co-pilot in commercial flights, a disruptive development that has already sparked criticism from pilots and cabin crew groups on safety grounds.

The less ambitious proposal for solo operation in cruise, which would not start before 2027, would initially target improved pilot rest during regular flights, he said. A fatigued aviator could plan to sleep in a bunk rather than take short unplanned naps on the flight deck.

If the safety were proven, eventually long-haul crews that now required three or four pilots could be reduced to two, with both in the cockpit for take-off and landing, Boiardi added.

Even limited solo flying, however, is dividing airlines and raising public fears, while sparking a growing backlash among pilot groups like the European Cockpit Association.

“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada are very much aware of our position that two pilots on the flight deck is the most safe,” said Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Canada president Tim Perry.

The FAA declined to comment. Transport Canada said it would “monitor developments.”

While Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways has talked with manufacturers about reduced-crew operations, Air France chief executive Anne Rigail told Reuters single-pilot operations were not a priority.

An industry source familiar with Airbus’s project said an A350 used for single-pilot flight in cruise would feature extra automated protections against such threats as fire and engine failure and maintain autopilot functions in more circumstances than today.

Airbus said in a statement it was studying the concept of a single pilot in the cruise phase but not wholly single-pilot flights. Dassault did not respond to requests for comment, while Boeing deferred questions to regulators.

Boiardi said the concepts under review did not differentiate between cargo and passenger flights. Consumer resistance, however, could result in single-pilot flying starting with cargo flights, industry officials said.

The most important question is whether flying with less pilots onboard can be done safely. For the time being, neither the regulators, nor the manufacturers, have shown this could improve flight safety. @otjandebruijn spoke to @eaTransport on Reduced Crew Operations @Airbus @EASA https://t.co/ss6o9p39ap

— European Pilots (@eu_cockpit) September 14, 2021