Nuno Queiroz, captain of Portugalia Airlines and pilot for 23 years with 12,000 hours of flying experience, believes that although the new US and European rules reduce the risk of fatigue in pilots, the challenge in the coming years is to address the issue with the same care given to the aircraft mechanics.
Shift work or irregular shifts of civil aviation pilots defy the biological clock and cause various imbalances in professional and personal life. What measures have been taken in the field to alleviate this problem among pilots and their families?
The main measures implemented or being implemented lie in the creation, by the States, of work rules during flight and subsequent rest, based on the most advanced scientific studies and knowledge. The scientific method is the only objective way of dealing with this. The operational experience of the different actors must be taken into account, but will always be a subjective interpretation of the problem, where each party primarily defends its own interests. US rules were published in December 2011 and entered into force in January 2013. European rules, in turn, were published in January 2014, coming into effect on 18 February 2016. The rules are identical in its goals: to reduce the risk of pilot and crew fatigue and to assure physical and psychological recovery during the post-flight rest period and weekly days off. Because the two of them represent the world’s largest markets of commercial air transport, other countries are preparing similar legislation, such as Canada, Australia, Brazil and the largest air operators in the Middle East.
Are these measures sufficient? What still needs to be done in this respect by airlines and other industry entities?
In any case, it will not be enough simply because there is still a high number of fatigue reports from the crew. Recently, in 2013, a cargo aircraft of a US operator of global reference suffered an accident in which both pilots perished, the only occupants of the aircraft. Following investigation, the cause of the accident was considered to be pilot error, enhanced by a state of fatigue due to a particularly tiring flight scale and little chance of recovery. Note that the US air cargo companies were excluded from the new rules on limits of flight times. However, it is also fair to point out the effort made, globally and by all stakeholders, to address this problem.
The problem is strongly accentuated by jet lag in many pilots crossing continents with different time zones. Has there been a particular concern with these professionals and their families? The new US and European rules give special emphasis to transmeridian flights, i.e. crossing more than two time zones. This concern has several has several ways of dealing with the problem, as for instance reinforcing the crew, providing the aircraft with rest facilities, choosing the best location of stays and providing the crew with training on fatigue.
What best practices should pilots adopt for themselves in terms of sleep hygiene? More and more air operators are investing in “fatigue training”. The goal is to convey to crew the best strategies for prevention and reduction of fatigue on board of aircraft, lifestyles which are adapted to a sometimes very demanding work activity, and maximizing rest, mainly through good sleep hygiene. Sleep quality is the most effective tactic in recovery from fatigue. In general, every opportunity to rest should be seized, the so-called “chance to sleep”, thus recovering from the latest flight duty period but at the same time trying to reach the highest alertness when starting the next service flight.
Many passengers do not know whether the pilots have a rotating schedule of rest on long-haul flights. Is there such a procedure? Do they have their own places to rest? And do they actually rest?
Yes, there are such places, but only when there is “crew reinforcement”, i.e. more than two pilots on board. On flights with only two pilots, called “minimum crew”, which is the case most of the times, rest has to necessarily take place in the cockpit, where the pilot has full access to the flight controls, in case an emergency arises or an emergency requires immediate action. The “pilot reinforcement” is required for flights over eleven hours, or in shorter hauls, whenever it is considered convenient. When the rotation of the pilots in flight is possible, rest can take place in a place specially designated for that in front of the passenger cabin or in resting places away from the passenger cabin. Many long-haul aircrafts have twin bunk beds that allow horizontal rest. Rest quality on board will never be ideal. A flying aircraft produces a wide range of operating noises. Several studies on on-board rest proved that pilots never go into deep sleep. As such, although they are able to sleep, sleep quality is not ideal and recovery from fatigue is never fully achieved.
What changes need to be done by aircraft manufacturers and companies that buy them in order to ensure that pilots can rest while in flight? Are measures feasible? The technological development of aircraft and their systems lead to increasing autonomy in flight. Twenty years ago it was no more than 13 hours of flight. Today some of Boeing and Airbus models have autonomy of around the 18 flight hours and there are already designed aircrafts that can fly more than 20 consecutive hours, or turn around the world without refuelling!
The limitation no longer lies in the machine, but in the man. This will necessarily change the design of the flight crew rest areas and make it necessary to develop a “duty roster” in flight in order to enhance the performance of pilots in all phases of flight, but mainly during final approach and landing. These measures are technically feasible, but they will probably not be extensively used. There are only a few flight paths in the world that justify this type of operation. Nor will it be easy to persuade passengers to remain almost 24 hours inside an airplane cabin, however comfortable it may be and regardless of how fine the on-board service is.
Some aircraft accidents reports concluded that the pilot’s fatigue either contributed or determined the crash. What can be drawn from these findings?
Unfortunately, it was not until these accidents occurred that many countries finally took action in addressing the problem of fatigue amongst flight crew. Over the past 18 years three air accidents have occurred in the US caused by fatigue, resulting in more than 200 deaths. The last one occurred in 2009 in Buffalo, New York (Colgan Air – 2009). Fifty people died and it was the findings of the accident that led the US government to react and to instruct the aviation regulator (Federal Aviation Administration – FAA) to create new legislation within two years. The main conclusion to be drawn from all these tragic events is that fatigue is a risk that must be managed in the same way as other risks of air operations, such as aircraft maintenance, pilot training, security checks of passengers and luggage and the operation of the air traffic control. A risk manual was developed, the “Fatigue Risk Management Systems – FRMS”, which, as its name suggests, includes various risk management procedures. Fatigue will always be a fact, for it is a human biological characteristic, but this is a risk that can and should be controlled.
Do you recall any curious event in flight related to sleep or lack thereof, involving crew or passengers?
In 2012, flying over the North Atlantic in the evening, an Air Canada airplane flew in cruise mode. The captain and the co-pilot had agreed to rest during flight in the cockpit, as the crew was made of two pilots. The co-pilot rested first, having slept about an hour and a half. Upon awakening, he suddenly grabbed hold the flight controls and made a sharp nosedive, which lasted only a few seconds until the captain took command and recovered the cruise flight. When asked about the dangerous action, he explained that, looking out the front window immediately after awakening, he would have seen another plane coming right in his direction… So he started the evasive manoeuvre. The “aircraft” seen by the co-pilot as an imminent danger was in fact planet Venus in a particularly bright time of year and situated near the horizon. He had just been the latest victim of a phenomenon called “sleep inertia”, a state of mental confusion that can last up to 20 minutes after awakening from deep sleep. The integrity of the aircraft was never compromised, but a few dozen passengers and some crew members were injured, some of them seriously, with fractures and injuries.