30 Years of ECA. From COVID-19 to single pilot ops – what’s next for pilots?

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The European Cockpit Association (ECA), an umbrella organisation for pilot unions across Europe, turns 30 this month. The ECA, which represents more than 40,000 European pilots from national pilot associations in 33 European states, will host a panel on November 25 at 11.30 CET focusing on pilot representation amid the changing aviation industry. 

AeroTime spoke to Captain Tanja Harter, technical affairs director at the ECA, about how the piloting profession has changed over the past 30 years and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead. 

It’s been a tumultuous period for aviation in Europe. There’s been the big shocks of 9/11, the global financial crisis, SARS and of course COVID-19. Airlines have come and gone. Aircraft have also come and gone, including Concorde and the A380. And there’s been the rise of the low cost carriers, which have dramatically shaken up European aviation. 

Undeniably, the big challenge for aviation right now is finding a way out of the devastation wrought by the spread of COVID-19. 

On the positive side, A320 Captain Harter believes that the pandemic has made people realise the value of travelling and connecting in person with people. 

“What I experienced now is that people want to fly, they just want to go somewhere,” Harter says. “My feeling is that quite a few people have started to appreciate the possibilities offered by seeing other areas and seeing other people. Sometimes you only learn to appreciate things if you don’t have them anymore. Whether that will last I don’t know.”

However, she thinks that the pandemic is far from over and 2022 might be tougher than 2021. She expects consolidation in the airline market, but fears it will be the workforce that bears the brunt. 

“We’re already seeing companies trying to change working conditions, not only pay, but conditions, stays in hotels, density of rosters,” Harter notes. “The first target always seems to be the staff. Not only the pilots, the other staff as well, from mechanics to cabin crew and ground staff.”

Trying to slow down this downward spiral of conditions is something that the ECA is keen to tackle. But something that is also concerning unions are efforts to reduce flight deck numbers further. 


Single pilot operations?

Earlier this year, it was reported that Cathay Pacific was working with Airbus on reduced crew numbers, to leave just one pilot in the flight deck during the cruise phase. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said at the Dubai Airshow that the freighter version of the A350 has the potential for single pilot operations. So, manufacturers may be moving towards single pilot technology but will it ever actually happen on commercial flights with hundreds of passengers onboard?

“That, of course, is a crystal ball question. The overarching question is what is society willing to accept?” Harter muses. “Are we ready to accept a decrease in safety margins?”

Harter says that while many technological advances in aviation, such as the Ground Proximity Warning System, were all safety driven, she doesn’t feel the same safety factors are behind single pilot technology. 

“It’s like we are trying to pencil ourselves out of reality,” she says, acknowledging that aviation is far from the only industry seeking to remove humans from the equation. 

She admits there are jobs that could be better done by automation, for example dangerous jobs such as mining. But removing a pilot from the flight deck is removing the safety net, she feels. 

“If you want to go into that discussion, it’s either two pilots or no pilot,” Harter declares. “I can think of so many professions where people are striving for a second opinion. Where do I get that if I’m all alone up there?” 

Harter also highlights that humans are excellent problem solvers, that in situations where a computer might say ‘no’, people would look to find a workaround and get the desired outcome. 

“Another issue is how are you going to pass on your experience and learn if you’re on your own. I learned a lot during my time as first officer,” Harter adds.

Still, there’s some technology that is being developed with a view to single pilot operations that could be useful for planes with two crew members. For example, Harter says, a system that tells pilots quickly mid-flight which is the most suitable alternate airport would really help to ease the workload in a challenging situation. 

However, the phrase ‘two heads are better than one’ is there for a reason.

“I’m grateful for many of these gadgets like the enhanced ground proximity warning system. But I’m also grateful if I have a well trained first officer next to me, and I’m not on my own.” 

Harter also points out there are more pressing and challenging matters at hand, notably climate change and how the industry can reduce harmful CO2 emissions. 

“Globally, discussion is focused very much around climate change and fuel burn. And that’s not going to be addressed whether there’s one or two pilots up front.” 


Evolution, rather than revolution

Harter has been a pilot for almost 30 years, having started her training in 1995. She’s been fascinated with flying since she was a child, begging her parents to take her to a hill near their local airport in Austria so she could watch the planes. She took a ground staff job while she was studying and during her flight training to help pay the costs, with the aircraft helping to inspire her. 

“When I was working on the ground and saw a 737 taxiing, I always told myself ‘at one point in time, I’ll be in the right seat of that bird’,” Harter remembers. 

Now as a captain on the Airbus A320, Harter has some unusual answers as to what she feels has been the biggest progress, technology-wise, during her time flying.  

“What I find myself expressing the most amazement over is the fuel savings you get on the A320neo family versus the older generation A320s. Especially now that I am coming back after not flying for almost a year.”

The A321neo, Harter explains, has the same standard fuel flow as an older generation A320, but it carries an additional 50 passengers. 

“Technology wise, it probably wasn’t a revolution, but more of an evolution. You see the outcome but not necessarily all the little steps that are behind it. So for me, that is quite, quite impressive.”

Another big change in daily operations has been the shift away from paper to electronic materials. 

“We used to have paper books, we used to have paper flight plans, we used to have to do the documentation with paper and pencil. And that’s all done, at least for my company, and I believe in many companies, electronically these days.”


Back to normality

As for the future, Harter is looking forward to the industry returning to normal. She wants to get back to more destinations and is eager to experience some overnight stops again. 

“To me that has always been part of the profession, to see other people, other cultures and I’m really looking forward to that coming back.”

She also hopes that automation won’t take over everything, and that we can appreciate just how useful we are as humans. 

“I would really hope for people to recognise how valuable humans are in the whole system rather than trying to pencil us out of everything.”

Harter says that overcoming challenges is one of her favorite parts of the job. “That is what is very satisfying. It can be an extremely chaotic day with lots of problems to solve, but you can say we did a good job there. Just a normal boring day is not as nice as one that involves a couple of challenges and keeps you busy.”


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