Airbus is eyeing the newly-launched A350 Freighter as a potential candidate for single-pilot flying.
Single-pilot operations are common in the private aviation and cargo realms but not with aircraft like the A350.
Airlines are already working with Airbus to make single-pilot passenger aircraft a reality.
The labor and shipping crises are taking flight as newer cargo planes may be developed in a way that would require only one pilot to be at the controls for most of a flight.
Airbus just launched the Airbus A350 Freighter at the Dubai Airshow in November with a seven-aircraft order for Air Lease Corporation. Once developed, it will likely be the second-largest twin-engine cargo plane in the skies.
Its main competition, as of now, will be the freighter variant of the Boeing 777-300ER currently in development with Israel Aerospace Industries.
Boeing may also introduce the 777X Freighter based on its new wide-body aircraft, which will be the largest twin-engine passenger plane once certified, surpassing the A350 Freighter. But the manufacturer has so far held off on launching the program while it focuses on certifying its other aircraft.
Both the Airbus and Boeing jets will help cargo airlines meet the growing needs of an industry bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic and delays in ocean shipping.
Packages will finally get to ride on freighter versions of the airliners that passengers have long enjoyed.
But despite its size, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said that the A350 Freighter might be a “candidate” for single-pilot operations, as FlightGlobal reported, in which only one pilot will be in the cockpit at a time.
Both pilots would likely be in the cockpit for takeoffs and landings but then one only would be needed to watch over the aircraft and its systems during cruise flight.
While one pilot is in the cockpit, the other would be resting in dedicated rest areas outside the cockpit.
The freighter won’t make its debut until later in the decade when the manufacturer is hoping to broaden its capabilities in the single-pilot realm.
The A350 is uniquely qualified for single-pilot flying given the high level of automation already built into the aircraft, including the ability to auto descend without pilot input in case of an emergency.
Whether or not existing cargo aircraft can be adapted to single-pilot operations remains to be seen.
Cargo airlines frequently turned to retired airliners when making their aircraft purchases, many of which do not have the same level of technology and automation found in the A350.
Single-pilot operations are already common in the private aviation realm as the stakes are comparatively lower than a commercial airline flight with hundreds of passengers onboard. Popular jet aircraft from the likes of Embraer, Pilatus, Cessna, and Cirrus can be flown with just one pilot.
And some air carriers that fly small propeller aircraft will often staff flights with only one pilot.
Air cargo, along with private aviation, is where experts believe innovations in single-pilot operations will be seen first. Startups are already looking at replacing single-pilot cargo operations with self-flying aircraft.
“Cargo is, to some extent, an easier first place to deploy this because you can get exemptions [and] work with the regulator to start flying initially over unpopulated areas,” Marc Piette, chief executive officer of autonomous aircraft startup Xwing, told Insider in April, referring to his company’s self-flying Cessna Caravan 208 aircraft.
“That way you’re not just putting anyone on board in jeopardy, but you’re also not putting anyone on the ground at risk,” he said.
For Airbus, a single-pilot operation might seem like a step back as the builder has already cracked the code on self-flying aircraft.
Airbus taught an A350, the same aircraft being considered for single-pilot use, how to taxi, takeoff, and land entirely on its own and without pilot input.
The technology, Airbus said at the time, is intended to ease pilot workload and could pave the way for single-pilot flying and eventually no-pilot flying.
And if single-pilot cargo jets are a success, the next step could be commercial airliners. Airbus is already working with airlines to incorporate single-pilot flying on long-haul flights to reduce the number of pilots on a given flight.
Cathay Pacific Airways and Lufthansa are two of the global airlines involved in “Project Connect,” as Reuters first reported. Though, the timeline for implementation is unclear.
Airbus isn’t alone in pioneering a single-pilot future as cockpit technology is already evolving to accommodate fewer pilots in the cockpit on larger and larger aircraft.
Honeywell Aerospace debuted its Anthem cockpit in October which includes voice control capabilities and search functions in addition to highly intuitive systems that ease a pilot’s workload.
French business aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation is also developing its new Falcon 10X with the hope that single-pilot operations during cruise flight will soon be allowed.
“This aircraft is due to fly for many years and regulations may change,” Philippe Duchateau, Dassault’s chief test pilot, said during the aircraft’s unveil. “The level of automation will allow us to have one pilot flying the aircraft while the other one is resting in the cockpit.”
And the next step up from single-pilot operations, in the mind of experts, is autonomous operations.
“As you automate more and more and more, there’s less of the manual stuff for the pilot to do,” Stéphane Fymat, vice president and general manager, urban air mobility and unmanned aerial systems, at Honeywell Aerospace, told Insider in April. “You do more and more of that, and you step down the road towards autonomy.”
These developments are aimed at solving a lingering threat that plagues the aviation industry: a shortage of pilots.
Airlines may have found themselves with too many pilots during the pandemic but it will have too few in the long term.
The stringent qualifications imposed by regulators combined with the high cost of training have made it more difficult for airlines to recruit, and it’s a problem that’s only getting worse.
Airlines have adopted ab-initio training academies but the cost of training can still set would be pilots tens of thousands of dollars before they receive their first paycheck.
Reducing the number of pilots required on a given flight would help alleviate the issue, especially as long-haul flights often call for two sets of crew. And an autonomous flight may require no pilots at all.
But before any pilots are taken off from an airplane, airlines and aircraft manufacturers will first have to get approval from their respective regulators and perhaps more importantly, their insurance companies.
“The decision on whether or not there will be a pilot on these planes may not be made in the executive suite of an airline, it may be made in the executive suite of an insurance company,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider of autonomous aircraft in June.
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