On August 15, 2022, on Ethiopian Airlines flight ET343 from Khartoum to Addis Ababa, Africa's largest airline, a deeply concerning incident occurred. While the 12-year-old Boeing 737 (ET-AOB) was overflying Addis Ababa, it was still at the cruising altitude of 37,000 ft due to both pilots onboard falling asleep.
The air traffic control tower made multiple attempts to contact the pilots but was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the aircraft continued its approach to runway 25L, which was recorded in the Flight Monitoring Computer (FMC). In other words, despite making the proper approach, the aircraft did not descend at all because its altitude settings had to be separately programmed. Fortunately, the pilots, who had fallen asleep in the cockpit, were awakened by the sound of the autopilot's alarm as it disengaged due to the altitude being too high for landing, and they were able to land the aircraft successfully with a 25-minute delay. An investigation was launched after the incident and the pilots were suspended until the investigation is completed. The duration of the pilots' slumber is unknown for the time being.
Although Ethiopian Airlines has been a major success for African aviation, the reputation of the company for its treatment of pilots or its general safety culture is very troublesome. The fact that pilots fly more than 100 hours each month has been the subject of countless reports and complaints. However, this is not an issue that only concerns Ethiopian Airlines. Pilot fatigue is one of the most pressing issues in the global aviation industry.
Why Pilots Falling Asleep Is Risky?
In May 1927, Charles Lindbergh struggled to stay awake in his aircraft named Spirit of St. Louis, the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, a 33.5-hour flight from New York to Paris. Pilot fatigue and insomnia is a problem that the aviation industry has been fighting ever since.
One of the biggest threats to aviation safety is a scenario where both pilots fall asleep while the aircraft is in flight. Although the airplane is flying along under the supervision of the autopilot, the pilots must continuously check the weather, the aircraft's fuel level, and any other flight instruments in front of them throughout the flight and be ready for any emergency that might occur.
According to scientists, fatigue and sleep deprivation reduce attention, memory, problem solving, judgment, awareness, and decision-making skills. The pilot's state between sleeping and being awake impairs situational awareness, psychomotor performance and therefore control over the aircraft, and increases the tendency to make errors. All this creates significant safety issues.
Lengthy commutes, extremely long flights, irregular living, eating, and sleeping schedule, prolonged wait times in airport lounges, and probable physiologic rhythm abnormalities brought on by time zones all add to the stress of a pilot working ten hours a day and raise operational hazards. Night flights putting a strain on the biological rhythms of the pilots also make them more fatigued.
What Causes the Pilot Shortage?
As COVID-19 spread quickly over the world in 2020 and 2021, flight operations nearly came to a halt, and people huddled indoors. To reduce expenses, airlines gave early retirement packages to thousands of pilots. Also, a lot of pilots lost their jobs. Processes for training and licensing in pilot training programs were suspended.
Airlines across the world are currently dealing with a severe staff shortage with travel normalizing faster than expected in the post-pandemic period. Thus, flight crews are working very hard to prepare their schedules. Airlines are pushing the limits of their cockpit and cabin crews. Despite this, some of the scheduled flights have to be canceled due to lack of flight crew.
The safety of flights is greatly endangered by cumulative fatigue and the effects of fast and insufficient training. Pilot fatigue is among the root causes of the 16 major fatal plane crashes that have been recorded so far. In other words, fatigued pilots unwittingly invite catastrophic accidents these days.
Companies increasing compensation to attract new pilots also fail because this action encourages active pilots to transfer to airlines that offer higher pay.
Airlines are free to employ as many people as they like. But pilot training and licensing processes take a long time. Moreover, for airlines, this process is not only a time commitment, but also a financial commitment for a long-term investment in pilots. In conclusion, the consequences of certain extreme actions made during the pandemic are now being felt.
ITA Pilot Fired for Falling Asleep During Flight
During the New York-Rome flight of Italy's national airline ITA Airways with an Airbus A330 on April 30, both pilots onboard fell asleep. As a result of the investigation following the incident, the captain pilot was fired. This was because the captain and co-pilot had shared certain hours of the flight to rest alternately, and the captain had fallen asleep when he should have been in control.
Recently, more than 1,100 pilots from Southwest Airlines organized protests in front of Love Field Airport to raise awareness about their complaints of excessive fatigue and stress.
The situation in Türkiye is not much different from that of the rest of the world. The cockpit and cabin crews of Turkish Airlines and Pegasus are also complaining about extremely busy flight schedules. The crew, who performs flights with exhaustion, claims that rest hours are kept to a minimum.
What Do Airlines and Executives Say?
In order to maximize profits in highly competitive market conditions, airline executives frequently disregard the potentially fatal consequences of fatigue and disregard human factors and limitations.
A few months ago, Josef Varadi, CEO of Wizz Air, made an interesting statement: “We cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness, because the person is fatigued. Sometimes it is required to take the extra mile. The damage is huge when we are canceling the flight.” He drew great reaction. Varadi may have overstepped his bounds with his statement, but it is difficult to say that other companies and their executives think differently.
All airlines want to maximize their flights and earnings by filling the staffing gap as soon as possible, integrating them into the system, and completing the training that needs to be given to current employees. To heal the severe wounds they sustained during the pandemic as quickly as possible and to fulfill increased demand, they see no harm in pushing the limits.
Pilots are Afraid and not Reporting!
Important research is being conducted in the U.S. and Europe on pilot fatigue and its solution. The successful implementation of plans created to maximize crew performance and get the most out of each pilot falls mostly on airline companies. Planning tens of thousands of hours for hundreds of flight crews each month is a difficult endeavor. It is not easy to plan tens of thousands of hours for thousands of flight crews every month. Making no concessions on the principle of “putting people front and center, rather than the system” and evaluating the complaints meticulously are among the most critical issues for the solution of this issue. In addition to official reporting, all airlines should design and adopt a confidential reporting system, which is used by several airlines, to allow pilots to express their concerns without fear of repercussions. This might have a positive impact on finding long-lasting solutions.
Qatar Airways pilots’ raising alarm under cover names “Your body is just screaming for rest. You feel the pain inside of your chest, and you're unable to keep your eyes open,” reported in the worldwide press is extremely frightful.
However, there is another aspect in this case that is just as horrific as the wording. Despite the fact that many of their coworkers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, not a single Qatar Airways pilot has filed an official report on these abnormal working conditions!
For this reason, pilot fatigue is one of the most critical concerns the industry needs to address. Companies must be more adamant about managing fatigue risk. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) both need to adopt a firm stance on the matter.
Certainly, in the long run, developing strong personnel planning system and making decisions to use their resources more efficiently may be more beneficial for airlines. Airlines trying to quickly fix the pilot shortage issue today may have to deal with severe problems in the near future, both economically and in terms of flight safety.
Pilot fatigue should not, however, be viewed in isolation from the pilots themselves. Regulators can mitigate the risks associated with pilot fatigue by taking actions like training, changing the flight time limits, and implementing other fatigue management programs. However, it is the pilots' responsibility to manage their own levels of fatigue. This must not be overlooked.
Final Message for Passengers!
Being informed that our flights have been canceled is the last thing any traveler wants to hear. The primary thing we all want, though, is a safe flight and to get where we're going without any issues. Therefore, it seems healthier to understand the decisions of airlines such as canceling some flights, reducing frequencies on some routes, and even to request this as passengers from them.
This is the only way airlines can project how many flights they can operate with the available aircraft and crew. Greater planning can help everyone's expectations line up and lessen unforeseen cancellations and delays.
In the short run, this situation might make travel a little bit more challenging, possibly more expensive, and possibly more crowded—all of which could be annoying for passengers. But it will undoubtedly help in rebalancing the sector and raising the bar for flight safety. Don't get so upset if you arrive at the airport and learn that your flight has been canceled. I'm sure you wouldn't want to choose a terrible flight experience over a canceled flight.
In conclusion, one of the core issues facing the aviation sector that needs immediate attention is pilot fatigue. To change something and make things correct, there is no need to wait for another disaster to result in hundreds of casualties. Everyone must shoulder responsibility on this matter!