“In TAP airline the number of sick-leaves due to fatigue has been increasing”

Nuno Veiga da Fonseca

Interviewed by iSleep, Nuno Veiga da Fonseca, TAP flight attendant and member of the Board of the National Union of Civil Aviation, says that the Portuguese airline overburdens its staff with work hours, which leads to health problems and a very high sick-leave rate due to fatigue.

Shift work and irregular working hours of crew staff are basically a challenge to the biological clock, causing imbalances in professional and personal life. What measures have been taken in the aviation field to ease this problem?

To a certain extent, the measures being taken in the field are the exact opposite of what it takes to have a certain personal and family stability in the staff. According to current regulation, the daily working time limit is 14 hours, and it can extend to 18 hours, provided that there is a minimum resting time of 12 hours between flights. The weekly breaks, that must be planned every 7 days, are limited to 36 hours, counting from the moment of touchdown until the take-off of the next flight. The new European legislation, also known as Flight Time Limitations, which was approved by the European Parliament at the end of last year, is even more restrictive of crew rest and hardly sensitive to the crew’s personal and family life. However, staff working under collective labour agreements, or joint venture agreements, end up having a more protected personal and family life.

What about jet-lag?

There has been no concern about that matter. Current national legislation is too generic. In Europe, legislation and joint venture agreements are drafted with greater care, and the same can be said about the rest periods that reduce the problems caused by jet-lag. Unfortunately, in our country, the general attitude of airlines is to push the limits when it comes to making use of staff, which leads to a very high sick-leave rate due to fatigue and health issues.

I know that you recently had a hard jet-lag experience…

TAP now offers flights to Bogotá and to Panama City, Latin-American cities that are 6 hours away from Lisbon. A while ago I was on that flight and the result was waking up at Lisbon time every day during the stay, 8 a.m., which meant 2 a.m. in local time… I wasn’t able to rest properly except for the last day. Returning to Lisbon, it took me 4 or 5 days to recover.

What has to be done by airlines and other entities in the field to improve the quality of life and sleep of crew members?

Looking at good examples, as in the United States, and realising that the increase of working hours and decrease of rest periods and family and personal time produce situations of stress and wear that may lead to situations of serious insecurity.

Many passengers that take flights are unaware of whether the crew members have a rotative rest scheme for long-haul flights. Is there such a procedure? Do you have specific places to rest? And do you actually rest?

Some airlines have devices that enable rest in horizontal position, but only during long-haul flights. In Portugal, in all mid-haul flights, there are no rest places, although the working hours of the crew sometimes exceed 10 hours. When that space exists, it is located beside the passengers’ seats or in the take-off and landing seats…  It is important to note that rest always depends on the time availability to do so… If duty does not allow it or if there is any abnormal situation on the flight, rest is either short or non-existent.

What changes have to be made so that aircraft manufacturers and airlines that buy them provide for the crew’s rest inside an aircraft? Are those changes possible?

In most recent long-haul aircraft manufacturers have been trying to provide places in the plane that enable the crew’s rest. Airlines show this concern as well, but only because the flights are becoming longer and longer, with a increasingly lower number of crew members, within legal framework limits. It is not a very genuine “concern”…

In some reports of plane accidents, humane fatigue is found to be an important factor, or even the main cause. Which conclusions can be drawn from it?

The conclusions are very straightforward. In the ’80s the United States were first in the de-regulation of commercial aviation. There was an increase of working hours and a reduction of crew members per craft. The negative consequences were almost immediate. Meanwhile, this attitude has changed in the United Stated but, ironically, it started being reproduced by European countries. These countries have been preparing legal changes destined to reduce the crew’s rest. The Flight Time Limitations is an example thereof.

Are health and welfare of flight crews threatened in Europe?

Crew members are human beings, they need to rest so that their stress and fatigue levels don’t build up to the point of physical and mental breakdown. The long hours of work and the smaller and smaller rest hours, that affect the sleep cycles, are not the sole health issue. Cancer rate among crew members is incredibly high. The lower air oxygenation and the lack of humidity in the aircraft also have severe impacts in health.

Is there any curious story you recall from a flight involving sleep, or lack of it?

I recall one passenger who flew from Rio de Janeiro to Lisbon. It was obvious that he did not sleep much during his stay in the Brazilian city, because he instantly “blacked out” as he sat in his seat and he slept thought the whole 10 hours of the flight. Upon arrival at Lisbon, he had to be awaken by the crew members and, after all the other passengers disembarked, he literally went with his head against the overhead lockers until he reached the exit door. I also recall one time in which a passenger was flying to Lisbon from a small town in China. After the several connections he had to make, he was travelling for about 35 hours without any sleep. During the last 8 hours of flight, between Brazil and Lisbon, he did not have any sleep either and, when he finally arrived to the Portuguese capital, he insisted that his ticket had been stolen and that he was thus incapable of flying… to Lisbon. The lack of sleep and the accumulated fatigue were impairing his judgement in such a way that he completely blacked out during the last 8 hours and was convinced that he had remained in Brazil.