Could single-pilot long-haul flights safely save costs?

Current studies are exploring how many pilots are needed for a long-haul flight

The aviation industry typically works on low profit margins and is continually trying to develop ideas to minimise operational costs – this extends to reducing crew numbers and their associated costs, including accommodation, training and recruitment expenses.

Airbus and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific are examining a new system known as Project Connect, where a reduced cockpit crew of just two pilots fly a long-haul aircraft. Instead of the three to four pilots currently required on all long-haul commercial flights, only one pilot would be in the cockpit at a time, with the other taking a rest break.

The reduced-crew concept, which relies on technology to monitor the active pilot’s alertness and vital signs, has gained new relevance since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Crew were estimated to account for 25% of the cost of running an aircraft, the biggest expense after fuel, and the global average of flight hours supplied is at approximately 65% of pre-pandemic levels.


Single-pilot operations are already the norm on small planes with up to nine passengers, private jets and military aircraft, but despite this, changes to crew numbers on larger planes are unlikely to happen anytime soon. Bodies including the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, and the EU Aviation Safety Agency would have to approve such a rollout.

Michael Wette, Oliver Wyman partner and head of transportation and services for India, the Middle East and Africa, said: “Most of the pilots’ organisations and the airline managers we speak to are very sceptical about independent flying computers.”

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