Pilot fatigue: Alarming safety management gaps exposed in latest report

Written by Petra Čubelić

Instances of microsleeps in the cockpit, inadequate rest opportunities leading to cumulative fatigue, and prolonged flight duties exceeding legal limits have been unveiled in a freshly published report that sheds light on the shortcomings in safety management related to pilot fatigue in European aviation. The report, ‘A fatigue survey of European Pilots’ by the aviation safety management consultancy Baines Simmon, delves into insights from a comprehensive survey encompassing nearly 6,900 pilots from 31 European countries. Beyond highlighting significant fatigue-related indicators just ahead of the bustling summer season, the study exposes systemic deficiencies in how European airlines address the risk of fatigue. Airlines under the jurisdiction of various countries, notably Ireland, Malta, Spain, and the UK, stand out as underperformers across several dimensions outlined in the report.

Drawing from data collected in July, the study illustrates that fatigue concerns were already manifesting in flight decks prior to the peak summer rush. A staggering three out of four pilots reported experiencing at least one microsleep during the past four weeks of flight operations. Remarkably, a quarter of the surveyed pilots disclosed encountering five or more microsleep episodes. Furthermore, a concerning 72.9% of pilots admitted to not receiving adequate rest intervals to effectively recover from fatigue between their duties. Additionally, the report brings to light a disconcerting trend of flight duty extensions, with nearly 20% of pilots employing Commander’s Discretion (CD) to prolong their flight duties on two or more occasions within the past four weeks. Alarmingly, over 60% of pilots expressed varying levels of apprehension regarding potential repercussions if they were to decline a flight duty extension permitted under CD.

ECA President, Otjan de Bruijn, expresses deep concern, stating, “These are worrying signs and clear indications that fatigue safety risks are not well managed in many European airlines,” The Baines Simmons study arrives just two months following a warning from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) about the heightened risk of aircrew fatigue during the summer season. EASA urged airlines to plan operations with ample buffers and cautioned against relying on pilots to consistently extend their maximum flight duties. However, the revelations from the study portray a contrasting reality. De Bruijn continues “This is very concerning, especially as the results cover a period before and at the very beginning of the peak of summer operations. If these are the results we are seeing already in June and July, fatigue levels in August can have gone only one way – upwards!”

The report also shows another, more structural dimension, which is present not just during the summer operations: “The data [,,,] demonstrated that there are challenges and inadequacies in the fatigue risk management arrangements of operators across all countries represented, and gaps in the oversight provided by regulators.”, while adding that “there are clear indications of improvement being required, and a lack of standardisation across European states”.

A case in point that exemplifies suboptimal fatigue risk management is the handling of fatigue reports. A mere 10.8% of pilots affirmed that their airline responded to fatigue reports with operational changes aimed at enhancing safety. Only 13.2% noted effective communication from their company about fatigue reports, while a paltry 12% expressed trust in their airline’s reporting system. As Baines Simmons insightfully notes „Without an effective reporting system, the airline is unlikely to have an accurate picture of fatigue in the operation, limiting their ability to manage fatigue risk by implementing effective mitigations.” A recurrent trend across the survey data is the consistently lower scores in fatigue management, reporting, rest, Commander’s Discretion usage, and the fear of declining it for airlines registered in Malta, Spain, Ireland, and the UK.

“Ireland and Malta – two countries with a certain reputation in the aviation industry, and home to major transnationally operating airlines – stand out in this survey but not in the positive way,” says Philip von Schöppenthau, ECA Secretary General. “This raises a number of questions, and it is clearly up to the authorities, as well EASA, to look deeper as to what is going on in those countries and in the airlines under their oversight. We hope that EASA and national authorities across Europe will take a careful look at the report and take the necessary action to ensure that airlines provide effective fatigue reporting systems and manage properly their fatigue related safety risks.”

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Petra Čubelić