DUBAI: Machines have revolutionized the customer experience in banks and other financial businesses, supermarkets experiment with unmanned tills and stores, while computers and robots help surgeons perform delicate procedures in operating theaters around the world.
The question then arises: Could a computer fly hundreds of passengers in an aircraft at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet for hours on end, plus handle the landing and take-off?
Computers have long helped pilots through sophisticated auto-pilot and navigational technologies. But pilots actively fly the aircraft at critical points and are on standby throughout a flight.
Now, much as the focus may be on the implications and safety of the driverless car and lorry, studies are underway to determine whether machines can take the place of pilots in the skies.
To be precise, the studies are not looking at whether pilots can be phased out completely but at how many cockpit crew members are needed for a long-haul flight.
Nadine Itani, an aviation strategy consultant and head of the Middle East Aviation Research Center, defines “a long-haul flight as one that goes beyond six hours,” adding: “Usually, long-haul flights require a stop somewhere, so you are connecting two points, either directly or through a transit or a stop.”
Airbus and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific are examining a new system known as Project Connect, whereby a reduced cockpit crew of just two pilots fly a long-haul aircraft. Instead of the three or four pilots currently needed to be physically present on all long-haul commercial flights, only one pilot would be in the cockpit at a time with the two taking turns for rest breaks.
Cathay Pacific, in which Swire Group and Air China are the largest shareholders, confirmed that it was working on reduced-crew studies but said that it had no commitment or intention to be the first operator to launch such a program.
Lufthansa of Germany also said it had worked on the program but added that it currently had no plans to introduce it.
Itani pointed out that single-pilot operations were already the norm on small planes with up to nine passengers, private jets, and military aircraft. What was being tested was the ability to apply the same concept to large commercial aircraft and for flights lasting more than six or seven hours long. She added that the requisite computer technology was not currently available to guarantee the safety of aircraft.
She said: “When we speak of machines, machines have high margins of error and this might lead to accidents, which imposes a risk on safety.
“This is the main challenge that is putting this project back. Until today the research shows that there is no 100 percent secure and safe machine-led or machine-piloted aircraft.”
The reduced-crew concept also has to convince a rigorous array of regulators. Bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, and the EU Aviation Safety Agency would need to approve it, Itani added.
Other experts agreed that single-pilot operations were some way off.
Michael Wette, partner and head of transportation and services for India, the Middle East, and Africa at Oliver Wyman, a consultancy with offices in Dubai and other cities and clients in Riyadh and Jeddah, told Arab News: “Most of the pilots’ organizations and the airline managers we speak to are very skeptical about these independent flying computers.
“In this, the security aspect of it is the biggest hurdle and issue. The safety of passengers is until today ensured through the professional training and the experience of the pilots, especially when it comes to non-standard situations,” he said.
While there was currently a surplus of pilots, a shortage was expected again soon and Wette noted that technical studies such as Project Connect would likely continue as they had been conducted for some time.
He added that nearly 25,000 pilots were furloughed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, but 75 percent of them had returned to their jobs as flight activity had picked up recent months. However, others were still on extended leave and almost 10,000 pilots had taken early retirement packages and left the job market due to the global health crisis.
Project Connect was not new. Itani said the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration started researching the possibility of single pilots flying commercial aircraft in 2012. The pressure to reduce costs had, however, intensified over recent years.
At the best of times, the aviation industry worked on very low-profit margins. It was continually trying to come up with ideas to minimize the cost of operating aircraft by limiting crew salaries and accommodation, training, and recruitment expenses.
Crew costs were estimated to be around 25 percent of running an aircraft and were the biggest expense after fuel, Itani added.
The reduced-crew concept had gained new urgency since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The aviation industry had been badly affected. Entire fleets of passenger planes have been grounded, dozens of airlines have filed for bankruptcy, and thousands of pilots are believed to have been laid off.
And travel has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Today’s global average of flight hours supplied was approximately at 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and that included the Gulf region, said Wette. Most travel at present was for leisure or family emergency, not business.
Airbus pointed out that its studies were based on a minimum of two operating crew per flight, and that tests were being conducted in conjunction with regulatory authorities and airline partners.
An Airbus spokesperson told Arab News that safety was a top priority for the giant European aircraft manufacturer and that the new technologies were “not fully mature” and “based on technology availability and maturity, the first potential application of autonomous technologies might be single-pilot operations and only during the cruise phase.”
The spokesperson said: “With safety and social acceptance being top priorities, Airbus’ mission is not to move ahead with autonomy but to explore autonomous technologies alongside technologies in materials, electrification, connectivity, and more.”
There was also the question of infrastructure. Single pilots in cockpits needed to communicate with the ground in case of emergencies and safety hazards and airports needed to upgrade their radio communications and ground operations, said Itani.
Usually, decisions were taken by collaboration among pilots in cockpits, but when there was just one pilot in control, the pilot required another party to communicate with, apart from a machine.
No Arab airline or Middle East carrier has joined Project Connect but, as sizeable international operators, they are likely to be watching closely. At the current stage, the single-pilot operations system is being tested on Airbus A350 jets.
Qatar Airways was the launch customer of the Airbus A350 and has major expansion plans. It is also a part of the Oneworld Alliance of which Cathay Pacific is a member. However, Singapore Airlines is now the biggest customer of A350 planes in terms of its fleet.
Itani said: “Middle Eastern carriers and Middle East airports play a significant role in connecting the east and the west through airports such as Doha, Dubai, and very soon, Madinah and Jeddah.”
If and when the single-pilot operations system wins approval, and the green light is given by the various authorities concerned, airports in the Middle East region as well as Middle Eastern carriers will have a “considerable and important role to play,” she added.