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50% of passenger aircraft pilots sleep on duty

A Fatigued PilotA new European Cockpit Association (ECA) fatigue barometer survey has found that more than four in ten pilots admit to taking a nap while they are on duty in the cockpit.  Among pilots in the UK, Sweden and Norway, between 43% and 54% say they have involuntarily fallen asleep while flying a plane.  One-third of these then admitted to waking up and finding that their co-pilot was asleep as well.

The staff associations affiliated with the ECA questioned around 6,000 pilots about fatigue for this research.  Over three out of five pilots in Denmark, Norway and Sweden admitted to making mistakes because of fatigue, and this number increased to four out of five among German pilots.  Some 70% to 80% of the fatigued pilots wouldn’t admit to be unfit to fly in fear that their employers would brand them or that they would be disciplined.  The ECA says this demonstrates that fatigue is a common, under-reported and dangerous phenomenon among pilots in Europe.

This follows the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) revealing just last month that two British pilots had taken a nap while in sole control of passenger planes.  Their co-pilots were on the flight deck and both were alone in the cockpit.  In one case, the captain left the cockpit to use the loo and tried to radio his co-pilot without getting a reply.  He had to use a code to get into the cockpit, where he found his co-pilot slumped over the flight controls.  In a second case, a pilot returned from his break and had to use the code when returning to the cockpit, where he had to shake his co-pilot awake.  Another case saw a pilot sleeping at the controls after his plane had landed.

The ECA research has also been revealed just weeks after the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced proposed changes to rules on rest requirements and duty times for pilots.  It’s the agency’s aim to harmonise limits on the hours that pilots work across the entire European Union.  The new plans include 11 hours of flying time – plus travel time to the airport and stand-by time – for a total of 22 awake hours.

The Commons’ Transport Select committee has warned that 22 awake hours is extraordinary, especially if pilots are flying during the night, as it would raise levels of fatigue to the same as being drunk.  Pilots in the UK are on duty for up to 18 hours without sleeping already.  The committee says it’s worried the new rules will set a standard that consents to a generally higher level of fatigue.  If it’s not properly managed, the situation could lead to an increase in the risk of accidents.

The Department for Transport (DfT) insists the EU proposal won’t compromise safety or increase fatigue among pilots.  The government, however, has accepted some of the committee’s findings – like recommending that the under-reporting of pilot fatigue be investigated.  Ministers say they will seek to strengthen certain EU regulations surrounding flight duties and rest periods, as well as toughen limits on how often airlines can use discretion to exceed maximum fatigue levels.

A British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) spokesperson said that it’s clear the government chooses to ignore thousands of pilots’ concerns in the UK.  It looks as if they are going to give in to Brussels on these plans.  The EU wants British pilots flying under higher levels of fatigue more often, so the response from the government is very disappointing.  They hope Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will change their course.

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