Fatigue: A Persistent Problem for Pilots

ALPA and Industry Gather to Address Ongoing Pilot Fatigue Issues

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer
Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, welcomes attendees of the two-day seminar “Navigating the Future: Fatigue in the New Normal” held at ALPA’s McLean, Va., offices.

More than 100 participants, including ALPA members representing 15 of the Association’s pilot groups, gathered in McLean, Va., in late January to take part in a two-day seminar on pilot fatigue, a safety issue that’s plagued pilots since ALPA’s founding. The conference, organized jointly by ALPA and Airlines for America, brought pilots, government officials, and airline industry representatives together to promote open discussion and greater awareness of fatigue-related issues and to find ways to better address them.

This year’s seminar, “Navigating the Future: Fatigue in the New Normal,” focused on a renewal of fatigue concerns in the wake of the COVID crisis of the past few years. As airline travel has returned to prepandemic levels, the Association continues to work with partners to further mitigate the risks posed by pilot fatigue. This seminar, traditionally held annually, was convened this January for the first time since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020.

“Now that we’re returning to normal operations following the pandemic, in many ways pilot fatigue trends are picking up where we left off before it began,” said Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president. “We know that scheduling issues are top of mind at the bargaining table as we negotiate contracts in the postpandemic environment.”

Much of the focus of the conference was on FAR Part 117, the U.S. federal regulations that govern the flight-time/duty-time limitations and rest requirements for most flight operations under FAR Part 121. Part 117 took effect in 2014 following the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., which resulted in 50 deaths (see page 18). Pilot fatigue was a factor in that accident, prompting lawmakers and regulators to take a serious look at fatigue issues, and also led to increased minimum experience requirements for pilots flying for Part 121 carriers. It was the first major revision of pilot rest requirements and flight-time/duty-time limitations in more than 60 years.

More recently, flight delays and cancellations amid busy summer and holiday travel have brought fatigue back into the spotlight. Many pilots say that the stress of these disruptions is wearing them out even before reaching their flight- and duty-time limitations, and it’s compromising air safety. The challenges that Southwest Airlines pilots faced during the recent holiday travel season is a good example of the kind of pressure that pilots must sometimes cope with, as frustrated passengers lose patience and air carriers push to maintain schedules. And with some carriers struggling with staffing as airline travel recovers to prepandemic levels, many pilots are increasingly facing situations in which fatigue is a factor.

The recent holiday travel period saw a large number of flight cancellations across all of the airlines, according to Paul Karg, a manager in ALPA’s Economic & Financial Analysis Department, although Southwest represented the lion’s share with 39 percent of its flights canceled between December 1 and December 31 of last year. Fatigue calls were also up significantly in 2022 as compared to the prior two years. Most of these can be traced to schedule construction, rerouting, or hotel-related issues.

“Concern over pilot fatigue was one of the primary reasons that ALPA was created back in 1931, when operators regularly engaged in ‘pilot pushing,’ forcing pilots to fly long hours to maintain demanding schedules,” said Capt. Brian Noyes (United), chair of ALPA’s Flight Time/Duty Time Committee, which is responsible for educating ALPA pilots about the risks associated with fatigue and the regulations and safety programs currently in place to help mitigate those risks. “Even today, this issue remains an important focus of the safety work we do,” Noyes observed. “A forum like this that allows pilots, regulators, and airline industry representatives to have open discussion with one another is crucial to addressing these challenges.”

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Navigating the Future: Fatigue in the New Normal

Participants heard from experts on a variety of topics over the course of the two-day event, including presentations on flight-time/duty-time regulations, fatigue reporting, the use of fatigue risk management systems (FRMS), and the future of data-collection tools. Subject-matter experts from NASA’s Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory, the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, the Institutes for Behavior Resources, and the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service took part in the discussions, as did airline operations specialists and members of ALPA’s Flight Time/Duty Time and Fatigue Committees. The seminar also featured a presentation on risk assessment for fatigue calls, a discussion about the need to create an industry-level common taxonomy for fatigue reporting, information about a new FAA approval process for FRMS, and an update on the FAA/NASA Short-Haul Study.

A common theme throughout the event was the acknowledgment of shared responsibility among pilots, regulators, and airline managements. Establishing a strong culture of safety benefits everyone involved. Improving the ways in which pilot fatigue is identified, ensuring that pilots feel comfortable making fatigue calls or declining requested flight duty period extensions, and helping them to understand that they can do so without worry of possible discipline are all key areas in which stakeholders can work together.

While Part 117 certainly went a long way to addressing fatigue issues in the airline industry, seminar participants agreed that there is still much work to be done. As more data is collected and as sleep scientists learn more about the way the human body deals with being fatigued, it’s likely that improvements will continue to be made to further mitigate the risks associated with fatigue. But much can be achieved just through educating pilots who are on the line every day flying demanding schedules.

“Chances are that nobody here would ever consider flying over the legal limit of .04 percent blood alcohol content,” said Dr. Quay Snyder, ALPA’s aeromedical advisor and president of the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service. “But ask yourself this: how many pilots would choose to push on when they’re experiencing fatigue so that they can finish the trip and get back home? Fatigue can affect cognition just as much as alcohol. You can easily reach that same level of cognitive impairment by not getting enough sleep. It’s all about making sure pilots are informed about fatigue, making them aware of the dangers of not getting adequate rest, and giving them the tools they need to ensure that they’re fit for duty whenever they report to the flight deck.”

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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