Pilot fatigue series (Part 2): A global concern, but a 2009 crash in the US forced a change for the better


“My mind clicks on and off as though attached to an electric switch with which some outside force is tampering. I try letting one eyelid close at a time when I prop the other open with my will. But the effort’s too much. Sleep is winning. My whole body argues dully that nothing, nothing life can attain is quite so desirable as sleep.”

That was Charles Lindbergh in his book The Spirit of St. Louis, which is about the aviator’s transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

Lindbergh was so bereft of sleep — he went 55 hours without taking a wink — that he writes of seeing mirage-like fog islands in the sea below and “vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane.”

Thankfully, times have changed. While Lindbergh took nearly 34 hours to complete the flight, today the New York to Paris distance is covered in about seven hours.

In fact, the recent Qantas flight from Sydney to New York — the 20-hour journey was the longest ever — had four pilots sharing the workload.

But guess what, some things haven’t changed much either. While pilots all over the world may no longer go without sleep for 55 hours, they are increasingly complaining about sleep-deprived fatigue, leading to perilous situations in the air.

In March, pilots of Taiwan’s national carrier China Airlines went on a week-long strike protesting the long working hours and fatigue-related issues. Just a few days later, a clip went around showing the airline’s senior most pilot dozing off, mid-flight in the air. The airline eventually agreed to recruit more pilots to reduce the incidence of fatigue.

In 2016, easyJet, one of the world’s largest budget airlines, just about managed to prevent its pilots from going on a strike. The pilots were striking against increasing workload that was leading to sleeplessness and fatigue.

Pilots are worried. And they have a reason. While there is no one database that documents each fatigue-related incident, there is little doubt that these occurrences continue to happen.

In the first part, we had looked at how serious was the condition for pilots in India.

While accidents in the air are still rare, studies show a high incidence of human error whenever a mishap occurs. A report by BBC says that 80 percent of accidents occur due to human error. And fatigue is the main cause behind up to 20 percent of these human errors.

A survey, says the same report, of British pilots showed that 43 percent of them have fallen asleep in the cockpit. Equally strikingly, when 31 percent of these pilots woke up, they found their co-pilot dozing.

The incidents Some of the incidents read like a horrid tale.

In 2010, a Air Canada pilot woke up from a nap disoriented, and thinking that plane was about to collide with another aircraft, he put the aeroplane on a dive. At least 15 passengers were injured. Was there another plane on collision course? No, the pilot mistook planet Venus for a plane!

But passengers of a FlyDubai flight to Russia were not as fortunate. The flight crashed at Rostov-on-Don airport, killing 62 passengers. The plane’s pilot had put in his papers and was serving his three-month notice period. The reason? He was exhausted and wanted to take a break.

In the US, a Continental flight crashed into a house, killing 49 on-board and one on the ground. The captain of the plane had taken a red eye trip (which is done through the night) a day earlier, and taken a near-2.5 hour flight before taking joining work.

As tragic as the loss of lives was, there was one silver lining. The accident took place in 2009. Since then, the US has not had a fatal plane crash. The 2009 incident was its first ever.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the regulator in the US, did a few things right. A commercial pilot now needs 1,500 hours of flying experience to get commercial license, from 250 hours earlier. Additionally, a pilot has to take a minimum 10-hour rest, an increase of two hours, before reporting for duty. And he should have had an uninterrupted sleep of eight hours, in these 10 hours.

Surely, the changes must have helped, given the much better record for the US aviation industry since the 2009 incident.

How about India? What are the regulators and airlines doing to make work stress-free for pilots? We explore that in the third, and the concluding part of this series. Interestingly, there is one airline that is heeding pilots’ concerns. Get access to India’s fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code “GETPRO”. Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.