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Are security measures contributing to pilot fatigue?

Sunday, October 19, 2014 by Scott Coles


Recently, I read a disturbing article which provided new insight into the horrific 2009 Air France plane crash. Retrieval of cockpit voice recording data provided evidence two of the three pilots were asleep minutes before the crash, leaving the most inexperienced of the three in control of the aircraft. All 228 on board were killed and the report surmised it was due to the young pilot’s poor handling of a somewhat simple correction that had led to the disaster. It was also revealed the Captain had only slept one hour the night before as he had spent the night with his “travelling companion”.

Since this event, Air France, and other airlines, have made changes to their crew policies to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again. But will the new regulations actually prevent pilots from feeling fatigued at work? Given the subjective nature of the new method of pilots reporting fatigue, and the potential negative impact on their career, it’s unlikely many will be completely honest about how they feel prior to and during work. There have also been aircraft incidents since which have been attributed to fatigue, so it seems there are still fundamental scheduling problems.

Even before the Air France accident, there were a great many changes in the airline industry. After the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, security procedures were tightened significantly. Most people travelling internationally in the days and weeks immediately after would remember the mass hysteria that ensued, with absurdly long queues at security screening areas of airports like LAX and Heathrow. Indeed, queues haven’t improved all that much, and after every incident or scare involving a potential terrorist, security is once again heightened, almost to the point of insanity. I’m still not sure what harm someone is going to actually do with a small pair of blunt nail scissors.

The post 9/11 security procedures also entirely changed access to the plane’s flight deck. Travellers might remember being given the opportunity to visit the crew on the flight deck during their flight so they could experience flying from the control centre. Of course this small privilege is no longer on offer, and although this may have tightened security for passengers as a whole, it may have had other adverse effects on the pilot crew. I just wonder how often the Captain went for a nap when he was receiving regular visitors. With the previous ‘open door’ policy, they must have been far less likely to have had long stretches of interacting with no one, which only helps to make a person feel more fatigued. We know one of the main problems in the trucking industry is the solitary nature of long distance driving. You have no one with you to help keep you engaged and alert.

The other point that sounded alarm bells for me was the matter of fact comment in the Air France accident report about pilots napping during a flight. When I go to work, I don’t expect to have a sleep while I’m there. I arrive well-enough rested so I can take action and make decisions during my day which are sound and well thought out, even though I’m not directly responsible for the safety of hundreds of people. So why is it pilots should feel that’s a normal part of their shift?

I understand a long-haul flight can be far longer than a regular work day, and given commute times on either end, it leaves a person awake for very long stretches, but surely there are other ways to combat this problem. It seems pilot crew numbers have reduced over time. Previously there were flight engineers on the flight deck, but with new technology built into aircraft systems, flight engineers are no longer required on long-haul flights. Of course there are financial implications, but having additional crew take over mid-flight seems one obvious answer.

Another fatal air accident which has been in the spotlight recently is UPS Flight 1354. A number of safety recommendations have emerged from that crash investigation given fatigue was considered a significant contributing factor. They are now looking closely at a system where pilots can report fatigue and be excused from duty in a non-punitive way and investigators are conducting an independent review of current fatigue reporting programs.

From my perspective, another obvious answer is using new technology. Optalert has developed wearable technology which can monitor drowsiness in real time. The British Airline Pilots Association is currently using our system to measure pilot fatigue levels from the beginning of their commute, during their flight and their return home. Also, as a fitness for duty test, Optalert’s algorithm allows an objective measurement to assist in determining whether a pilot should fly, rather than relying on a verbal briefing before the flight and or a pilot self-reporting they are unfit for duty because they feel fatigued.

It will be interesting to see the results from the BALPA research, and I will also be watching closely to see how the air industry makes effective changes to the ongoing problem of pilot fatigue.

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