According to the survey conducted by the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), more than 40% of the polled pilots have (at least once) fallen asleep during a flight, revealing the warning fact - an alarming number of flight crew members (FCM) suffer from excessive fatigue. Since pilots’ performance depends on their firm control and strong focus during the flight, overwork and sleepiness are becoming the major flight safety issues.
Pilot overwork is a global issue. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 37% of the American pilots have sleeping problems due to intense work schedules and one of five pilots has at least once made potentially fatal mistake merely because fatigue. In 2010 over 70 pilots at one of the major Russian airlines have objected to the long haul flights with minimum flight crew stating that they wouldn’t be able ‘to ensure the required level of safety’. One senior Air India pilot’s long sleep, followed by an incorrectly assessed situation and several vital errors, resulted in an aircraft crash with over 150 casualties.
‘Without any doubt solving the issue of fatigue (which is a serious threat to passenger safety) is on the top of the ‘to do’ list for airlines and aviation authorities all over the world. However, many flight and cabin crew members are still forced to work longer hours, since some airlines are optimizing their activities and that often includes significant cuts in human recourses. Fortunately, the majority of ‘pilot-asleep’ cases end without or with only minor incidents. Once, the Northwest Airlines pilots have missed their destination by 150 miles. Allegedly, they have overslept it,’ commented the CEO of AviationCV.com Skaiste Knyzaite.
The problem of pilot sleepiness is a hot topic in the media and a commonly discussed issue during the meetings held by unions. The aircraft crash in 2009 near Buffalo, New York was similar to the aforementioned Air India catastrophe. After a thorough investigation and re-evaluation the FAA issued new pilot fatigue rules in 2011. According to the newly set regulations, a pilot must have a minimum 10-hour rest prior to his next shift. The FAA also introduced a limited flight duty period – 9 - 14 hours maximum, depending on the time of the day. The new rules will become effective in 2014.
The European aviation authorities, on the other hand, seem to be in favour of a reverse policy. According to the BALPA, EASA has recommended regulations which would allow pilots to be awake for 22 hours before landing the aircraft. They also suggest lifting the extra crew member requirements for the very-long-haul flights, meaning, for instance, only two pilots during a flight from Europe to San Francisco.
‘The initial EASA proposal seems to be a little bit harsh on pilots. But this is only an invitation to strike up a dialogue. Denmark, the current president of the Council of the European Union, have promised to launch a Ministerial debate regarding the issue. I believe that the European authorities will also eventually reconsider the current pilot working conditions as they are of paramount importance to flight safety. In any case, the way the Western states will handle the increasing pilot fatigue will shape the global aviation safety. Airlines should not save money at the cost of pilots or cabin crew members’ health. One of the ways to optimize expenses without the additional workload for the crew is to start cooperating with the international recruitment agencies, which may form flight teams at the airlines’ local disposal. After all, having an extra ‘restored’ pilot or flight attendant on the team will always contribute to high flight performance thus ensuring both safety and the passengers’ satisfaction,’ concluded Skaiste Knyzaite.