Job Safety

June 27, 2007

Near Miss with Tired Pilots

Airline pilots flying while fatigued poses risk to safety
27 June 2007

A BBC News investigation has revealed growing concerns among airline pilots that fatigue is leading to potentially dangerous incidents in the air. The BBC has heard from 32 pilots who say they have flown while unfit due to fatigue.

The BBC can reveal that an incident – with the first officer sleeping and captain “resting” – required a “quick reaction to avert disaster” as an airliner began turning into the path of another plane.

In another serious incident, investigated by the AAIB (Air Accident Investigation Branch), a fatigued pilot nearly stalled an aircraft in mid–air shortly after take off.

The BBC can also reveal the results of a survey for the pilots union BALPA (British Airline Pilot’s Association) which suggests a majority of air crews who responded are affected by fatigue – and that pilots believe passengers should be concerned.

BALPA found that 81% of pilots who responded said that their performance had been affected by fatigue. Pilots the BBC has spoken to blame the growing intensity of the aviation industry – and some say their managers are ignoring their concerns.

One pilot, ‘Andy’, told the BBC: “I have fallen asleep unintentionally in the air – where you close your eyes for a second and realise that ten minutes have passed.”

BALPA commissioned the survey, of over 500 of members, following inquiries by the BBC.

Aviation consultant Dr Ian Perry has treated dozens of fatigued pilots: “You might miss a radio call when you’re thinking about ‘is my altitude right?’ That’s chronic fatigue. I think in the last five years it has doubled. So if I see one or two people a fortnight, I’m now seeing four or five people a fortnight, something like that.”

Dr Perry added: “… We’ve been skating on fairly thin ice for some years and have got away with it. For us to have a true fatigue accident I say it could happen at any time now. And then people will turn around and say ‘well, why didn’t you do something about it?'”

There are limits to how many hours pilots can fly and there’s no evidence these are being breached. Most airlines told the BBC that their average hours had barely changed in recent years. But two thirds of pilots surveyed by BALPA said they were flying more than five years ago.

Some short haul crews now do six flights – six landings and take-offs a day – without leaving the cockpit. These require the most concentration and are regarded as the critical periods in the flight.

A pilot working in the low cost sector has told the BBC of an incident when an aircraft, with dozens of passengers onboard, began to turn putting it on a collision course with another passenger plane. Air Traffic Control (ATC) radioed an urgent warning but there was no response.

The aircraft bound for Europe had been on autopilot, while the captain rested. This had been agreed between the two men, and left the first officer in charge. However, on realising there was no response to the ATC warning the captain told the BBC: “So I looked across, and saw he was asleep.”

However, in the official report to his airline the captain didn’t mention that his co–pilot had been asleep. “I didn’t want to get him into trouble. There’s no two ways about it. I knew that he would probably be pulled in and be treated fairly harshly … effectively its gross negligence.”

However, many pilots and experts told the BBC that admitting their fatigue to managers is a taboo. Pilot ‘Andy’ said: “I was genuinely fatigued and whenever I reported that I was completely exhausted the operator says ‘are you refusing to do the duty?’. He should not have been asking me, let alone bullying me into doing it.”

The pilot added that this “routinely goes on.”

This view was reflected in the BALPA poll which found that a third of pilots believed they’d risk disciplinary action if they reported their fatigue. More than one in ten (12%) would carry on flying, without reporting it. Forty percent said they would report fatigue.

The chairman of BALPA, Mervyn Granshaw, claims that fatigue is “the single biggest issue facing aviation today. At the moment we are not seeing it appear as accidents or incidents but we’re getting closer to that point.”

Another fatigue-related incident published in an AAIB bulletin took place at Birmingham Airport in 2004 (but not reported until April 2006) involving a passenger jet, with 85 passengers on board.

Shortly after leaving the ground the crew raised the plane’s wing flaps instead of the landing gear. That created the danger the aircraft could stall – and potentially fall from the sky.

The captain had to lose altitude to increase speed – he recovered at less than 700 feet above the ground. An official investigation by the Air Accident Investigation Board concluded that fatigue was a key factor.

Captain David Chapman, head of flight operations at the UK’s air regulator, the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) maintains the system is working: “We have the finest flight time limitations system in the world. I have no problems at all in saying that I don’t believe we have a major fatigue issue.”

In a written statement responding to concerns about pilot fatigue, John Hanlon, Secretary General of the ELFAA (European Low Fares Airline Association) said:

“Aircrew flying duties are strictly regulated by the CAA and the IAA in the UK and Ireland which ensures that no pilot can fly more than 900 hours per annum (average 17 hours per week). These safety limits are met by all airlines and are subject to regular audit.

“Europe’s low fare airlines have an exemplary safety record and this has been delivered by making safety the number one priority at all times. ELFAA member airlines operate a Just Culture system, whereby all pilots are free to report any issues, which they feel impinge on safety, without having to divulge their identity.”

Roger Wiltshire of BATA (The British Air Transport Association) said: “We don’t feel there is a fatigue issue in the industry. Pilots are flying well within the regulated flying hour limits, and in the UK we have some of the most regulated pilot flying hours and duty hours in the world. And although short haul pilots are flying more hours than they were that’s because the schedules are more efficient.”