MONTREAL, CANADA — Willie Walsh, the Director General of the current International Air Transport Association (IATA) and former head of International Airlines Group (IAG), said the discussion surrounding single-pilot operations in commercial aviation would continue for several years, with no guarantee that it will be embraced by airlines.

Despite his personal comfort in flying in a single-pilot aircraft, with the capability to intervene if needed, Walsh believes the conversation on the topic will persist.

"I don't expect to see a move to single-pilot operation, if ever, but certainly I don't see it in the next 15-20, even 25 years," Walsh said during IATA's Global Media Day last month.

The European Union recently submitted a working paper to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assembly, exploring the possibility of introducing extended minimum-crew operations (eMCO) and, in the future, single-pilot operations (SiPO). The paper sheds light on the challenges and advantages of these concepts.

According to the working paper presented by the European Union at the ICAO assembly, the extended minimum-crew operations (eMCO) concept can be viewed as a precursor to greater automation, ultimately paving the way for single-pilot operations (SiPO). Under eMCO, a single pilot would be in control during the cruise phase of a flight while the other pilot takes a break, thereby reducing the number of pilots on board long-haul flights from three or four to just two.

The European Union working paper presented at the ICAO assembly highlights the reasoning behind exploring extended minimum-crew operations (eMCO) and single-pilot operations (SiPO), citing advancements in commercial unmanned aircraft and the improved safety and economic benefits from improved cockpit automation and more efficient aircrew utilization.

The EU working paper warns that the implementation of extended minimum-crew operations (eMCO) and single-pilot operations (SiPO) can only occur if the current level of safety is maintained and preferably elevated. The introduction of these new operations would necessitate regulatory involvement, as well as compensatory measures integrated into aircraft design and operation, along with expanded ground support.

The EU working paper also acknowledges the significant safety concern posed by the sudden incapacitation of a single pilot in the cockpit and proposes that real-time monitoring of pilot alertness and performance could be necessary to promptly identify any instances of fatigue or incapacitation. Despite the potential economic benefits, the EU warns that the extra measures required for such operations might limit those benefits.

Despite the potential limitations, the EU concludes its paper by encouraging ICAO members to consider the proposals and work towards creating a step-by-step plan for evaluating and implementing extended minimum-crew operations (eMCO) and single-pilot operations (SiPO).

Apart from the EU, Cathay Pacific is collaborating with Airbus on the eMCO concept as part of a project launched in 2021. During an IATA safety conference in October, Chris Kempis, Cathay Pacific's Director of Flight Operations, referred to single-pilot operations as a daunting but inevitable challenge, referencing the aviation industry's successful track record of reducing cockpit crew levels through automation. However, he also stated that the transition to single-pilot operations would be much more complex than going from three crew members to two.

Over 40 nations, including Germany, the UK, and New Zealand, have requested the UN body that sets aviation standards to assist in the establishment of single-pilot flights by 2027.

The assignment of full responsibility to a single person has elicited strong objections from Australian pilots. The Australian and International Pilots Association sounds the alarm against single-pilot flights, contending that they undermine safety. Vice President of the Association and Qantas First Officer Mark Hofmeyer stated that having two pilots on board is essential for flight safety.

Tony Lucas, AIPA President and Captain at Qantas A330, has expressed that a single pilot may struggle to handle an emergency.

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