Labour Research June 2012

Health & Safety Matters

Tired pilot caused air incident

The crucial issue of pilot fatigue is back in the spotlight after an official report into an incident on a transatlantic flight.

Eastbound transatlantic flights departing in the North American evening and arriving in the European morning are known to be among the most tiring of long-haul flights. Because of this, pilots on such routes must take scheduled naps.

Last year, a “confused and disoriented” co-pilot on a transatlantic flight who had woken from one of these naps mistook the bright light of a planet for another jet.

The co-pilot responded by initiating an avoidance manoeuvre, pushing the plane into a sharp dive. The force of the dive caused 16 passengers and air crew to be flung about; some suffered bruises and cuts.

An investigation by the Canadian Transportation Safety Board concluded that the co-pilot was suffering from “sleep inertia” magnified by fatigue. The report was critical of the fact that the co-pilot had not followed standard rest time for “strategic napping” of 40 minutes. Furthermore, following a strategic nap, a 15-minute period is meant to be taken to allow the crew to fully wake up.

The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) has linked this incident to EU proposals on relaxing flying time regulations for pilots. Jim McAuslan, general secretary of BALPA, said that the EASA European aviation safety agency’s fatigue proposals “will drastically increase the total amount of time pilots could be awake for — up to 22 hours — before landing their aircraft.”