Fatigue ‘taken seriously’
A current Emirates pilot said reporting fatigue often led to sleep apnoea testing and at least a temporary grounding. The former Emirates captain said his high use of sick days, mostly when fatigued, was noticed by management and delayed his promotion from first officer to captain for months.
An Emirates spokeswoman would not say whether taking reporting illness or fatigue could affect promotion, but said the airline maintained “the highest standards” when considering a promotion to captain.
“Flight fatigue is an issue we take seriously,” she says. “If pilots feel that Emirates has not addressed their concerns, they also have recourse of addressing this with the regulator, the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).”
The president of GCAA, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, is also the chairman and chief executive of Emirates and the chairman of Flydubai.
Australia’s new rules
Locally, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in 2013 introduced new rules for pilot fatigue management. They were initially supposed to take effect this month, but the deadline was moved to May 2017 to give airlines more time to develop new systems.
The old fatigue rules defined flight and duty time limitations in a rigid way with no regard to the science behind fatigue, including whether pilots are acclimatised to the time zone. The new rules provide more flexibility for individual airlines, but each fatigue risk management system will require CASA’s approval.
Australian and International Pilots Association president Nathan Safe, whose union represents Qantas pilots, says the new science-based approach to flight-time limitations based on factors including circadian lows was welcome, but the real test will be in how it is implemented and operated.
For the major commercial airlines, the new system could result in less flying rather than more flying in many cases.
Regional Express last year claimed the new rules could cost it more than $4 million a year and might make some routes unviable.
CASA will be taking a much firmer approach to extensions of duty, with airlines required to monitor weather and airspace patterns statistically before calculating duty periods.
“Operators need to be more realistic about the possible delays in the system and ensure that if there are foreseeable delays, they can be incorporated into the maximum allowable duty period and don’t result in an extension,” a CASA spokesman said.
A Qantas 737 pilot says the change is welcome. “It will mean that Qantas will no longer be able to schedule near 12-hour day patterns,” he says.
Since 2007, Virgin has operated a data-driven fatigue risk management. Qantas, Jetstar and Tigerair are still developing their systems ahead of next May’s deadline.
It is unclear whether Jetstar and Tigerair will end the tiring Sydney-Perth-Sydney night shifts under the new system.
Qantas and Virgin say the reason these shifts aren’t done at the main carriers is because they are prohibited in the unionised employment agreements, rather than because of fatigue concerns.
Qantas Group medical director Dr Ian Hosegood said the group’s airlines have robust systems in place to manage fatigue, including a fatigue management committee which includes pilots, safety specialists and crew planners.
“We closely monitor fatigue risk on all shifts, particularly longer and late night shifts,” he says.
For example, Qantas recently changed its rostering after the Tokyo-Brisbane route, which lands at 6:45am in Brisbane after 10 hours of duty. The pilots now start their duties the following day at a later time with a reduced workload of one to two short domestic sectors.
Dr Dawson, the fatigue specialist, says pilots must also bear some responsibility, and try to limit distractions at home and partying on the road to ensure they are rested before flights.
And after more than a decade of studying fatigue in the aviation industry, he says the issue doesn’t particularly worry him when he takes a flight.
“The number of flights that crash is less than one in a million,” Dr Dawson says. “I’ve got more chance being killed on the way to the airport than in an airplane.”