Aviation industry looks to reduced-crew long-haul flights for cost savings

Whilst not seeking to eradicate cockpit crew altogether, Project Connect and other systems could reduce numbers. (AFP/File Photo)
Whilst not seeking to eradicate cockpit crew altogether, Project Connect and other systems could reduce numbers. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 02 September 2021

Aviation industry looks to reduced-crew long-haul flights for cost savings

Whilst not seeking to eradicate cockpit crew altogether, Project Connect and other systems could reduce numbers. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Engineers push the limits of automation as pandemic-induced slump bites
  • Opinion is divided on the wisdom of having fewer pilots on long-haul flights

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.




A flight crew from Cathay Pacific Airways, wearing protective masks, walk in the international terminal after arriving on a flight from Hong Kong at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on February 28, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

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.




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. (AFP/File Photo)

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.




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. (AFP/File Photo)

“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.




Nadine Itani (L), an aviation strategy consultant and head of the Middle East Aviation Research Center and Michael Wette (R), partner and head of transportation and services for India, the Middle East, and Africa at Oliver Wyman. (Supplied)

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.”




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. (AFP/File Photo)

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.




No Arab airline or Middle East carrier has joined Project Connect but, as sizeable international operators, airlines like Emirates are likely to be watching closely. (AFP/File Photo)

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.

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi


ACWA power to sign $7bn green hydrogen deal with Omanoil, Air Products

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is greeted by Haitham bin Tarik, Sultan of Oman in Muscat. (ONA)
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is greeted by Haitham bin Tarik, Sultan of Oman in Muscat. (ONA)
Updated 13 sec ago

ACWA power to sign $7bn green hydrogen deal with Omanoil, Air Products

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is greeted by Haitham bin Tarik, Sultan of Oman in Muscat. (ONA)
  • Part of 13 MoUs signed with a value of $10bn

MUSCAT: Saudi ACWA power will sign on Tuesday a $7 billion deal with Omanoil and Air Products to produce green hydrogen in Oman's Salalah Free Zone, it was reported on Monday.

Omani and Saudi firms signed 13 memoranda of understanding (MoU) potentially valued at more than $10 billion, Omani official media reported on Monday, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sets off on a Gulf tour.


Saudi desalination corporation reveals environmental sustainability road map

Saudi desalination corporation reveals environmental sustainability road map
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi desalination corporation reveals environmental sustainability road map

Saudi desalination corporation reveals environmental sustainability road map
  • Kingdom’s plans for improving environment, combating climate change, reaching carbon neutrality shared at global industry forum

JEDDAH: A Saudi government institution responsible for the desalination of seawater has revealed its road map to achieving environmental sustainability at a major international industry conference.

Officials from the Saline Water Conversion Corp. shared their Saudi Green Initiative action plans — aimed at improving the environment, combating climate change, and reaching carbon neutrality ­— at a recent forum in London attended by more than 90 global leaders and investors.

By taking part in the event, the SWCC not only hoped to strengthen its world leadership role in the desalination industry, but also look at ways to further reduce production costs while increasing the involvement of relevant Saudi companies and organizations in current and future projects.

Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan was among forum delegates who heard how the corporation was focused on enhancing the use of clean energy sources in place of thermal heating systems.

Addressing the meeting, Saleh Al-Mana, the SWCC’s assistant deputy governor for technical affairs and projects, said that by reusing water and recycling filters in production systems, and developing engineering principles in technical designs for beneficiaries including the agriculture, industrial, and urban sectors, the transition to low carbon activated the circular economy.

The corporation has been working on initiatives to achieve environmental sustainability in all areas of desalination supply, from production to transportation.

At the Saudi Green Initiative forum held in Riyadh in October, the Kingdom revealed its blueprint for dealing with climate change by increasing the reliance on clean energy, protecting the environment, and offsetting millions of tons of carbon emissions annually by 2030.

The country was investigating more ways to produce, treat, and distribute water locally using energy systems that ensured sustainable growth.

The initiative aims to protect the marine environment by investing in zero liquid discharge systems, a wastewater management system that extracts salts and minerals and converts them into products of high economic value for use in the industrial sector.

Earlier this year, the SWCC set a world record for the lowest energy consuming desalination plant.

The transition to a low-carbon future will be a complex process. Alternatives will take significant time and sustained investment to meet the rising global energy demand.


Aramco signs $15.5bn gas pipeline deal with global consortium led by BlackRock

Aramco signs $15.5bn gas pipeline deal with global consortium led by BlackRock
Updated 06 December 2021

Aramco signs $15.5bn gas pipeline deal with global consortium led by BlackRock

Aramco signs $15.5bn gas pipeline deal with global consortium led by BlackRock

RIYADH: Saudi Aramco signed a $15.5 billion lease and leaseback deal involving its gas pipeline network with a consortium led by BlackRock Real Assets and Hassana Investment Co., said a statement.

Considered to be one of the largest energy infrastructure deals, it represents Aramco’s asset optimization program and is the second such infrastructure transaction by Aramco this year after the closing of the oil pipeline infrastructure deal earlier in June 2021.

Upon completion of the gas pipeline transaction, Aramco will receive upfront proceeds of $15.5 billion, further strengthening its balance sheet, the statement added.

Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, said: “BlackRock is pleased to work with Saudi Aramco and Hassana on this landmark transaction for Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure. Aramco and Saudi Arabia are taking meaningful, forward-looking steps to transition the Saudi economy toward renewables, clean hydrogen, and a net-zero future.”

As part of the transaction, a newly-formed subsidiary, Aramco Gas Pipelines Company, will lease usage rights in Aramco’s gas pipelines network and lease them back to Aramco for a 20-year period. In return, Aramco Gas Pipelines Company will receive a tariff payable by Aramco for the gas products that will flow through the network, backed by minimum commitments on throughput.

Aramco will hold a 51 percent majority stake in Aramco Gas Pipeline Company and sell a 49 percent stake to investors led by BlackRock and Hassana, which is the investment management arm of the General Organization for Social Insurance.

Saad Al-Fadly, CEO of Hassana Investment Company, added: “We are particularly excited about this deal as it comes in line with Hassana’s strategy to create enduring value for GOSI and further strengthen our long-lasting partnerships with strong and reputable players such as Aramco and BlackRock.”

According to the statement, Aramco will continue to retain full ownership and operational control of its gas pipeline network and the transaction will not impose any restrictions on Aramco’s production volumes. 

Aramco CEO said: “With gas expected to play a key role in the global transition to a more sustainable energy future, our partners will benefit from a deal tied to a world-class gas infrastructure asset.”

The announcement follows a $12.4 billion lease and leaseback transaction concluded in June with a consortium led by EIG Global Energy Partners, which involved Aramco’s stabilized crude oil pipeline network.

Abdulaziz M. Al Gudaimi, Aramco Senior Vice President of Corporate Development, said: “We are pleased that we are concluding the second transaction, seeking long-term partners who understand and appreciate the industry.”

The gas pipeline transaction is expected to close as soon as practicable, subject to customary closing conditions, including any required merger control and related approvals.


Yemen replaces central bank governor, deputy governor amid currency collapse

Yemen replaces central bank governor, deputy governor amid currency collapse
Updated 06 December 2021

Yemen replaces central bank governor, deputy governor amid currency collapse

Yemen replaces central bank governor, deputy governor amid currency collapse

RIYADH: Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi reconstituted the country’s central bank board on Monday, replacing the governor and the deputy governor amid an unprecedented collapse in the local currency.
Ahmed bin Ahmed Ghaleb Al-Maabqi was appointed as governor, and Muhammad Omar Banaja as his deputy, a presidential decree published by state news agency SABA said.


Aramco chief calls for a realistic approach to energy transition

Aramco chief calls for a realistic approach to energy transition
Updated 06 December 2021

Aramco chief calls for a realistic approach to energy transition

Aramco chief calls for a realistic approach to energy transition
  • US oil CEOs also stress need for fossil fuels despite push for cleaner energy

RIYADH: Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nassir on Monday rejected what he called a “deeply assumption” that the entire world can run on alternatives and the vast global energy system can be totally transformed, virtually overnight.

He was speaking at a global energy conference devoted to future technologies and low-carbon strategies in Houston.

The Aramco chief said several highly unrealistic scenarios about the future of energy are clouding the picture such as investments worth “roughly $115 trillion will be made in less than 30 years.”

“Energy security, economic development, and affordability imperatives are clearly not receiving enough attention,” he said.

“There are still no truly viable alternatives to conventional fuels in aviation, shipping, and even trucking.”

His global counterparts at the World Petroleum Conference also affirmed the need for more oil for decades to come. 

“We in fact are going into a period of scarcity. And I think that for the first time, in a long time, we will see a buyer looking for a barrel of oil, as opposed to a barrel of oil looking for a buyer,” said Jeff Miller, CEO of energy services firm Halliburton.

World fossil fuel demand has rebounded sharply in 2021, with natural gas already at pre-pandemic levels and oil nearing levels reached in 2019. That comes even as large global majors, especially those based in Europe, are limiting exploration and production in an attempt to shift to renewable power development and as governments promote efforts to reduce cut carbon emissions to deal with rising worldwide temperatures.

The Aramco chief said due to the mounting pressure to stop all investments in oil and gas, the upstream capex has fallen by more than 50 percent between 2014 and last year, from $700 billion to $300 billion.

“Consequently, supplies have started to lag. This is also hurting spare oil production capacity, which is declining sharply. Yet this is happening against the backdrop of healthy demand growth.,” Nasser said.

Oil rose 3 percent a barrel to about $72 on Monday on hopes the omicron variant would be less damaging to oil demand.