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Three years of harmonised fatigue for European pilots

Have you ever checked your watch halfway through a long day at work, wishing it was over, turned to your co-worker, and with a smile discovered they had nodded off at their desk?

Rather a lot of Europe’s pilots have too, though probably without the smile.

In February 2016, after over a decade of false starts and wrangling, pilots and cabin crew throughout Europe finally became subject to a single harmonised set of rules to limit the way in which flights can be scheduled and crewed. These Flight Time Limitations (FTL) are supposed to prevent aircrew fatigue that could endanger the safety of an aircraft, its passengers and crew. 

Three years later, the lived experience of nearly every professional pilot in Europe would suggest that the rules certainly achieved half the stated aim – we are now harmonised, in that we all experience high levels of fatigue in routine scheduled operations…

A key part of that regulation was a requirement mandated by the European Parliament in the face of evidence that the original rules exceeded the recommendations of fatigue scientists in a number of areas. It required a scientific study to be undertaken, examining six areas where there was a concern about fatigue risks under the new regulation. That study was to report back within three years (i.e. now) and drive updates to the regulation in the light of operational experience.

3 years FTLs: We are now harmonised, in that we all experience high levels of fatigue in routine scheduled operations…

Unfortunately, EASA has only been able to review two of the six areas so far, but they are undoubtedly the two most problematic areas: Night flights, predominantly affecting (most) longhaul operations; and so-called ‘disruptive schedules’, where flights start or finish in the early hours of the morning, the biggest concern in shorthaul operations.

Later this month EASA will publish the results of this study. And we are certain it will show what pilots and scientists have been saying for many years: replacing the hours your body needs to be asleep with the task of piloting an aeroplane carries a very high fatigue risk.

It might be surprising if there was no fatigue mitigation for a pilot conducting the average person’s working day of 8 hours, but doing it overnight. However, the European FTL rules permit pulling an 11 hour shift, through the night, with no breaks, and the need to be alert and awake throughout. Whilst the study is due to look in particular at long night shifts of 10 hours or more, we should surely expect that without relief crew to allow their colleagues to get some rest break in such a duty, pilots will be dead tired during anything beyond a few hours overnight flying.

Fatigue science this might be, but rocket science it surely isn’t.

Likewise, repeatedly losing sleep by getting up before 3 or 4am to fly an early duty, or not getting to bed until 2am or later on a late duty, is going to result in fatigued pilots flying aeroplanes. Fatigue science this might be, but rocket science it surely isn’t.

These things are common sense, they are established fatigue science, and they were highlighted to EASA by the scientists who advised on the first creation of the FTL regulation. Addressing these fundamental realities is going to need firm and decisive change, not just fiddling around the edges with mere guidance, or the nebulous ‘emperor’s new clothes’ of Fatigue Risk Management. Otherwise, against the background of air traffic growing year by year, and the increasing productivity pressure squeezing professional pilots, fatigue can only get worse in airliner cockpits across Europe.

Europe’s pilot community therefore looks forward to the study report and to EASA – their pan-European safety regulator – to act upon the study’s findings, and to ensure that Europe’s FTL rules will soon reflect the real extent of fatigue that our members experience on an almost daily basis.

Three years of harmonising fatigue is enough already, it is time for the prevention of this insidious safety threat to be implemented as well.

by Capt. Jon Horne, ECA President