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Made in the EU: Reduced-Crew Operations

Although it may not be a source of pride, a significant development is taking place right in our own backyard: the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and at least two manufacturers are actively pursuing the elimination of one pilot from the flight deck during cruise phase. These controversial plans have likely already caught your attention, as they’ll have global implications despite originating in Europe. So how did this all begin and what lies ahead? Let’s delve into the details.

The process of enabling single-pilot operations during cruise, referred to as extended minimum crew operations (eMCO), was initiated a few years ago. Manufacturers Airbus and Dassault approached EASA to investigate this matter. Under the guise of fostering innovation and facilitating the development of new technologies, the agency deemed such a proposal worthy of examination. EASA launched a workstream encompassing preliminary research into the scope of eMCO; an assessment of hazards, risks, and mitigations; and, ultimately, a review of the existing regulations to accommodate eMCO.

emco phase of flight

In late 2021, the agency initiated its first phase by establishing an eMCO expert group composed of industry stakeholders, including experts from the European Cockpit Association. Over the course of more than a year, the group collaborated on a draft report, which served as a basis for the subsequent step in the EASA process: the so-called Best Intervention Strategy (BIS). The BIS is a standard EASA procedure to help the agency shape its rulemaking priorities. The BIS on eMCO is currently being finalized and will provide a road map for EASA’s future work on reduced-crew operations.

It’s obvious that manufacturers are pushing for swift approval of eMCO

The second phase of the project started earlier this year and is running in parallel with the BIS. During this phase, extensive research is being conducted into the hazards and risks of eMCO, as well as the potential mitigations. A consortium of aviation/transport engineering organizations and consultancies has been entrusted with the task of assessing the feasibility of implementing eMCO within the EU regulatory framework. The consortium’s primary objectives include developing a comprehensive risk-assessment framework and undertaking an in-depth investigation of key safety hazards and corresponding mitigations. Notably, the research focuses on various aspects related to single-pilot operations, such as failure conditions, sleep inertia, incapacitation and detection, fatigue, and the absence of the pilot at the controls during a lavatory break. The findings of the research are expected by the end of 2024.

If this research doesn’t identify any specific red flags and safety objections, the rulemaking and certification phase of the eMCO process will likely encounter no issues. These tasks are aimed at amending the existing legal framework applicable to air operations and aircrew training within the EU, thus allowing eMCO. These regulatory processes are expected to begin in 2025, with the intention of having eMCO ready for implementation by 2027.

It’s obvious that manufacturers are pushing for swift approval of eMCO. However, our position has been consistent from the beginning: eMCO is a gamble with safety. It’s an inherently dangerous concept, driven solely by the commercial interests of manufacturers and airlines. Fortunately, we’ve received support from the global pilot community, and our joint efforts with ALPA and the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) are effectively conveying a clear message to the European regulator. Manufacturers and airlines will always pursue their financial interest, but the regulator must preserve safety.

I’m pleased that the cooperation among the pilot organizations—the European Cockpit Association, ALPA, and IFALPA—is intensifying. We’re determined to do whatever is necessary to stop this dangerous concept and to preserve the highest possible level of aviation safety.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Visit our campaign website: OneMeansNone.EU

reduced crew operations