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


Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO

Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO
Updated 14 sec ago

Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO

Private healthcare investors set for huge returns over the next ten years, claims tech firm CEO

Investors in the digital health industry will see a return of up to 35 percent every year for the next decade, according to the head of a global technology firm.

Peter Ohnemus, president and CEO of Zurich-based dacadoo, talked up the rise of the sector during a discussion on investing in medical innovations at the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyad.

He said that the global value of the digitial health industry for 2021 has been estimated at $26billion, but it is forecast to grow to $238.9 billion industry within seven years.

He said: “From an investment perspective going forward over the next ten years will provide a very high return. 

“The integrated digital health sector will create a 30-35 percent return every year over the next decade.”

Ohnemus said that healthcare providers needed to make it simpler for people to understand what they needed to do to stave off chronic illnesses, and the cost implications of developing such conditions. 

Another CEO, Ali Parsa from London-based Babylon Health, also flagged up the costs involved in what he dubbed the “sick caring industry”, saying: “70 percent of all expenditure goes to predictable preventable diseases.”


SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021

 SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021
Updated 1 min 13 sec ago

SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021

 SABB reports profit of $750 million in first 9 months of 2021
  • The chairman reiterated the bank’s efforts to support Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan

The Saudi British Bank (SABB) recorded a seismic leap of 157 percent in net profit after Zakat and income tax of SR2.8 billion ($750m) for the first 9 months of 2021, compared to the loss of SR4.8 billion in the same period last year. 

“It is worth reiterating that we are in the investment phase of our newly announced five-year strategic plan, where we will be taking the necessary steps to develop the Bank into an institution fit to meet the future needs of our customers,” chairman of SABB, Lubna Olayan, said.

“We are investing considerably across the business front-to-back, to ensure that we remain relevant and can create a sustainable banking organization,” she added.  

The chairman reiterated the bank’s efforts to support Saudi’s Vision 2030 plan and unlock the opportunities brought by the economic transformation plans. 


Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction

Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction
Getty Images
Updated 17 min ago

Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction

Qatar Energy to launch green bonds in 2022; state commits to emissions reduction

RIYADH: Qatar Energy is looking to raise between $5 to $10 billion from issuing green bonds, banking sources told CNBC Arabia.

Qatar Energy is developing an environmental framework in collaboration with global investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, to move into the green bond market in conjunction with the global trend towards reducing carbon emissions, sources said.

The offering is expected to take place in the first quarter of 2022 or by the end of June 2022, sources added.

Separately, Reuters reported that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change in Qatar launched a national climate change action plan aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030.

The plan also envisioned reducing "carbon intensity" of its liquefied natural gas facilities by 25 percent by the same year.

Qatar's move follows other Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia which announced its net-zero emission target by 2060 ahead of the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow next week.


Qatar is the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas and aims to expand LNG production to 127 million tonnes annually by 2027. It says its gas production helps combat climate change globally because it can help the world shift from high-polluting fuels like oil and coal to renewable energies.


Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims

Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims
Updated 28 October 2021

Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims

Saudi Arabia will welcome a million cruise ship passengers by 2028, Cruise Saudi MD claims

A million cruise ship passengers will visit Saudi Arabia by 2028 according to ambitious plans set out by the managing director of the country’s Cruise Saudi company.

Fawaz Farooqui set out the goal during a session at the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyad, as he also claimed 50,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created by the industry by 2035.

He also pledged that five cruise ports will operate in Saudi Arabia by 2025.

Farooqui added that plans for Cruise Saudi had been hampered by the pandemic, and said: “Our plan was to bring the first cruise passenger in 2023, but the pandemic hit and many unfortunate incidents happened to the industry.”

Farooqui’s comments came just days after Cruise Saudi became a member of the World Travel & Tourism Council as the Kingdom continues its drive to diversify its economy away from oil as per the Vision 2030 agenda.


‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice

‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice
Updated 28 October 2021

‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice

‘Like fire and nuclear, there must be rules for AI,’ says leading tech voice

Humanity needs rules for dealing with artificial intelligence (AI) in the same way it learned to manage fire and nuclear technology, one of the sector’s up and coming voices has claimed.

Bruno Maisonnier, founder and CEO of AI firm AnotherBrain, admitted there was a danger with the new technology, but that is no different from every major discovery since the dawn of man.

Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative Forum in Riyad, Maisonnier said: “There’s risk with AI as well as there are risk with every new technology, that’s part of human history 

“We brought fire and people died from fire, we brought nuclear and people died from that . 

“Each time we have the same reaction: First we fear and then we start to put the feedback and learn and put rules to get the positive out of this technology

“The same goes with AI. The question is when do we have to set these rules?

“Rules must be put but first we must allow the evolution to happen.”

Also speaking at the forum, Pascal Weinberger, CEO and co-founder of tech firm Bardeen AI, insisted that machines will never be able to fully replace humans in many environments.

“There are a lot of things that machines are better at than humans, and vice versa — especially at common sense,” he said.