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


Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’
Updated 21 May 2022

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’
  • Capital Economics says it will be the highest annual growth rate in over a decade, if this happens

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product is expected to grow by 10 percent this year, driven by increased activities in the oil and non-oil sectors, according to a recent note from Capital Economics.

The London-based independent research firm said it will be the highest annual growth rate in over a decade, if this happens.

Capital Economics expects the Kingdom to achieve the projected 10-percent growth due to a  significant increase in oil output combined with an expected loosening of fiscal policy that is set to encourage growth in the non-oil sector.

This projection follows the flash estimate for the first quarter GDP released earlier this month which showed the economy grew 2.2 percent since the last quarter of 2021, and 9.6 percent year-on-year — the highest growth rate in 11 years.

In regards to performance on a quarter-on-quarter basis, the growth is attributed to a 2.9 percent rise in oil GDP due to increased output on the back of the OPEC+ deal and a 2.5 percent growth in non-oil activities.

The increase in energy prices, which has been the largest since the 1973 oil crisis, together with the war in Ukraine — which altered the global patterns on trade, production and consumption — have contributed to this record GDP growth.

SPEEDREAD

The projection by London-based Capital Economicsfollows the flash estimate for the first quarter GDP released earlier this month which showed the economy grew 2.2 percent since the last quarter of 2021, and 9.6 percent year-on-year — the highest growth rate in 11 years.

Though Saudi Arabia still hasn’t met its OPEC+ quota, it is one of the few members raising produc- tion significantly. With other member countries struggling to meet their quotas and an expected decline in Russian output, Capital Economics predicts the Kingdom will increase oil production faster than anticipated under the current OPEC+ agreement.

According to the World Bank, energy prices are expected to rise more than 50 percent in 2022, before easing in 2023 and 2024.

As oil prices remain elevated, policymakers are expected to relax fiscal policy to stimulate non-oil activities, with a reduction in the value-added tax a possibility, the note from Capital Economics pointed out.

The Kingdom’s non-oil sector has also expanded at the fastest rate in over four years, according to the Saudi Arabia PMI survey.

This has been due to new business and activity that boosted sharply as client demand recov- ered after COVID-19.

The increase in business also came in line with Vision 2030, a reform plan that aims to diversify the country’s economic resources.

The 10 percent figure projected by Capital Economics is much higher than recent projections from the IMF, which predicted the Saudi economy to grow by 7.6 percent in 2022, as mentioned in its World Economic Outlook released in April 2022.  


Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms
Updated 21 May 2022

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms
  • The new office will be a stand-alone; it will create jobs for Saudi citizens: CEO

Flash Entertainment plans to open a stand-alone office in Saudi Arabia within 3 months as the Kingdom is becoming a hotspot for events and leisure.

The entertainment firm, based in the UAE, is one of the Middle East’s leading live entertainment companies known for organizing some of the biggest global events, including several Formula One Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, the FIFA Club World Cup, UAE National Day, the AFC Asian Cup — arguably the biggest event in the region prior to the upcoming Qatar World Cup — and even Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE in 2019, which saw over 180,000 people in attendance.

“The new office will be the Saudi headquarters, it’s a stand alone, it’s not a branch,” the company’s CEO John Lickrish told Arab News. “We have a branch office in Dubai but here we wanted to set up our own office.” The new office will create 25 jobs for Saudi citizens. Lickrish who was in Riyadh for the fourth edition of the Saudi Entertain- ment and Amusement Expo this week was attending the event to touch base with the local commu- nity in the sector.

“I’m here to touch base with the local community suppliers and decision makers and try to make people aware that we’re entering the market,” he said. “We have done events here but now that we’re establishing an office, we want to integrate the GCC into a network of reliable promoters and suppliers that we can count on, and that’s the real goal of this.”

HIGHLIGHTS

This year’s event brought together some of the leading products, services, and technology brands in the industry from more than 25 countries, as part of the Kingdom’s plans to become the entertainment and leisure hub of the Middle East.

The show offers a global platform for top manufacturers and suppliers of entertainment and leisure products and services to do business with investors, distributors, government officials and owners of malls, cinemas and family entertainment centers, as well as key procurement professionals involved in small and mega Saudi entertainment and leisure projects.

The SEA Expo, held at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, is the first trade event dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning entertainment and leisure industry, with sellers from around the world showcasing the latest and greatest advances in the sector.

This year’s event brought together some of the leading products, services, and technology brands in the industry from more than 25 countries, as part of the Kingdom’s plans to become the entertainment and leisure hub of the Middle East.

The show offers a global platform for top manufacturers and suppliers of entertainment and leisure products and services to do business with investors, distributors, government officials and owners of malls, cinemas and family entertainment centers, as well as key procurement professionals involved in small and mega Saudi entertainment and leisure projects.

“The office will mostly have people from KSA,” Lickrish said. “We are going to be training them in our systems and processes, but they need to be here on the ground. Right now, we’re looking at 25 (local hires) based on our business plan for the next three years. From there, the sky is the limit.”

Flash Entertainment covers everything from event ideation, event management, marketing and communications, ticketing and sales, talent procurement and full operational and production delivery, as well as managing a portfolio of assets, including the Etihad Park and the multi-purpose state-of-the-art Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

A location for the office has yet to be decided, however, with Jeddah and Dammam as potential cities to set up the shop.

“This is a big populous, so for us, that’s interesting, and it’s an emerging market in the region as well.” Lickrish said. “I think what is important for us now is really setting the foundations, making sure that the country and the region is represented as not only capable but excelling in this field. And then we’ll go on to the regional talent and develop the local markets.” According to Lickrish, the company created the first citywide integrated enter- tainment program for Formula One in 2009 that has since been emulated with subsequent grands prix around the world. “So that was an innovation that we brought into the global market.”

Lickrish himself has been in the entertainment business for over 30 years and in the region for 14. He hopes to bring his exper- tise to Saudi Arabia that plans to invest $64 billion in the devel- opment of the entertainment industry over the next decade as part of Vision 2030.

“My goal is to see a self- sustaining, vibrant, regional business that has international recognition and ultimately a footprint globally,” he said. “We want to be giving them a unique experience, as well as a cultural and international experience.”


FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology
Updated 20 May 2022

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology
  • The institute is investing $527,515 in Timbeter, a leading green tech company specializing in timber measurement
  • Timbeter provides an AI-driven photo-optics app that accurately determines quantities of logs in an area with precise length and diameter

LONDON: The Future Investment Initiative Institute hosted a summit in London about Environmental, Social and Governance in emerging markets, involving world leaders, global CEOs, international investors, thought leaders and heads of sustainability.

The event unveiled a new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology to inform and accelerate investments in emerging economies.

The new methodology aims to give unbiased ratings for companies in emerging markets who currently receive less than 10 percent of ESG flows, despite being home to nearly 90 percent of the world’s population and roughly half of global GDP.

ESG rating agencies are one of the main barriers to increasing investment in emerging markets. Currently, mainstream rating agencies employ key perfor- mance indicators not relevant to emerging markets. The existing frameworks focus too much on disclosure and ignore year-over- year performance improvement.

The new framework, developed with the support of Ernst & Young, values performance improvement over time more than breadth of disclosure, emphasizing sectoral challenges rather than country risks, to ensure fair competition between companies in both emerging markets and developed markets.

The FII Institute is investing €500,000 ($527,515) in Timbeter, a leading green tech company specializing in timber measurement. Timbeter provides an artificial intelligence-driven photo-optics application that accurately determines quantities of logs in an area with precise length and diameter.

Timbeter is a software as a service workflow management solution for the timber industry, founded in 2013 at the Nordic Hackathon by Anna-Greta Tsakhna, its CEO, and Martin Kambla, CTO.

Forestry continues to be an important and controversial issue, with world forests decreasing by a third in size over the last century due to reckless practices.

This technology is key to a more proactive management of forests and a more sustainable sector.

Meanwhile, the ESG white paper is designed to encourage greater ESG investment in emerging markets. It calls on investors to publicly commit to raising the portion of capital allocated to emerging markets from less than 10 percent today to a minimum of 30 percent of committed and invested capital by 2030. It also calls on governments to encourage emerging market-headquartered companies to become more proactive at disclosing relevant information through their normal reporting channels.

Richard Attias, CEO of the FII Institute, said: “Central to our work at FII Institute is to increase awareness about the weaknesses in current ESG standards and their impact on global sustainability prospects, and to advocate for an inclusive and equitable application of ESG through driving real action by key players globally.

“ESG has been one of the fastest-growing investment strategies over the past few years, accounting for one-third of all assets under management. But this growth is not even. Working with our partners at EY, we identified and removed the barriers to ESG investment in emerging markets, which are often overlooked,” he added.

“By launching the Inclusive ESG Framework and Scoring Methodology, investing in a global sustainable solutions company, and publishing our recent ESG white paper — we are making tangible actions to create a better future for humanity. And we are confident that our partners around the world will help us drive those actions further.”


Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target
Updated 20 May 2022

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is now establishing a new hydrogen company and it will be like a mediator in many of the PIF’s initiatives.

Speaking in a regional forum on ESG organized by the Future Investment Initiative in London, the governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan said the sovereign wealth fund  plans to develop 70 percent of renewable energy targets under vision 2030.

The fund owns companies that are already developing hydrogen such as NEOM and Aramco. 

Rewilding Arabia
Return of the leopard is at the heart of plans to conserve and regenerate Saudi Arabia’s landscapes and wildlife
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PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit
Updated 20 May 2022

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

RIYADH: The Future Investment Initiative Foundation will host its first ever regional summit on Friday, in Rosewood London, England, entitled Inclusive Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance in Emerging Markets.

The most prominent participants in the event include the FII Chairman and Governor of the Public Investment Fund, Yasser Al-Rumayyan, Egypt’s Minister of Environment, Yasmine Fouad and Blackrock CEO Larry Fink.

The summit will bring together international investors, world leaders, thought leaders, policy makers, global CEOs, and chiefs of sustainability to discuss and shape the future of ESG, particularly in emerging markets.

“The planet has major problems with climate, with destruction of nature, peace and security. But we also have tremendous resources, including our common humanity,” Executive Director of the FII Institute, Richard Attias said.

“We believe that ESG is an important tool to bring us together and channel capital to meet these challenges,” he said.

Using ESG standards to make investment decisions is a global boom, with assets expected to reach $53 trillion, about a third of global assets under management, by 2025, a statement showed.

Still, the lack of a framework for the effective implementation of ESG in emerging economies represent a stumbling block for investors. 

The FII says it will finally have the tool needed to develop sustainable investment strategies in these markets, through its proprietary measurement framework, developed in collaboration with investors, global companies, and FII’s strategic partners.

The Foundation works to impact humanity across four focus areas: artificial intelligence, robotics, education, health care, and sustainability.

The event is part of a series of events hosted by the Foundation, which will culminate in the sixth edition of the annual FII Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October.

 

The PIF view

The PIF understands that being engaged in ESG is the right thing to do, Rania Nashar, head of compliance and governance at the fund, told the conference.

PIF companies are announcing emission reductions but it's not only about the destination, it is about the journey, she added.

“We approach the ESG through multiple aspects. Through creating platforms, sponsoring events and launching initiatives,” she said.