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Budget-cutting airlines are contemplating long-haul flights with just one pilot

Date: June 28, 2021

By Katie Dowd, SF Gate

There might be just one pilot in the cockpit on your long-haul flight someday, if testing by Airbus is deemed a success.

Reuters is reporting Airbus and Cathay Pacific are working to determine if it's possible to operate flights with one pilot at the controls most of the time. Cathay confirmed to Reuters it's probing "the concept of reduced crew operations," but declined to comment further. According to Reuters, the goal is to have single-pilot flights operational by 2025.

Two pilots would be required for the flight, with both pilots in the cockpit during takeoff and landing. Once at cruising altitude, one pilot would head back to the rest area while the other would continue to fly the plane. The plan would likely require the use of biometrics to continually monitor the health of the flying pilot.

This would be a major cost-save for airlines, as normal long-haul flights have three or four pilots. It would also solve a perennial business problem: Even before the pandemic, carriers were struggling to staff their planes with enough pilots. 

Unsurprisingly, the news was not met with enthusiasm by pilots. Otjan de Bruijn is the head of the European Cockpit Association, which represents European Union pilots. He told Reuters his group has safety concerns about cutting pilot positions.

"We struggle to understand the rationale," de Bruijn said.

Popular travel site The Points Guy also ran a story expressing skepticism about the concept, specifically Airbus's argument that the secondary pilot would be well-rested, since sleeping on flights isn't a given.

"There has to be a limit on what the flying public is happy to accept when it comes to safety," Charlie Page writes. "Computer-operated systems are great — until they malfunction. At this point, there is no one better placed to deal with the subsequent mess than a rested, alert, well-trained human."

Reuters additionally reports that German carrier Lufthansa investigated the one-pilot solution, but eventually dropped the idea.

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