Aviation stakeholders have established fatigue as a leading cause of aircraft accidents. Leading on from this, insufficient sleep and elongated work shifts have to be addressed. Pilots put excessive pressure on the brain and body when they work in longer duty cycles, which jeopardizes their ability to stay attentive and efficient in their work. Castro, Carvalhais, and Teles (2015) argue that the job description of pilots is unpredictable, especially since they do not have standard shifts that keep to a set pattern. They also respond to trans-meridian flights, which affects their perception of time.
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The UK Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Program provides insights on the errors, conditions, and incidents among pilots that fuel fatigue. Similarly, the Aviation Safety Reporting System of NASA has reported that approximately 21% of aviation incidences emerge from fatigue (Phillips, Kecklund, Anund, & Sallinen, 2017). The International Civil Aviation Organization (2015) states that, respectively, 43%, 50%, 53%, and 54% of pilots in the UK, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden will encounter involuntary sleep while in the cockpit. Some UK pilots confessed that they would fall into micro-sleep episodes with their colleagues. In another survey, 65% of pilots in France recounted how they struggle with heavy eyelids as they work.
This problem is persistent in the industry due to a worldwide lack of data on fatigue. Innovation and globalization are factors that continuously increase air traffic. This expansion is a significant threat to the aviation industry as management must have a unique understanding of what causes fatigue among pilots and how to overcome it.
Lack of Sleep as a Cause of Fatigue
Loss of sleep is a common cause of fatigue among pilots in both long and short flights. In extended flights, pilots work at night and experience jet lag. For instance, pilots often only have 22 hours layover during intercontinental flights (Phillips et al., 2017). They are therefore required to sleep during the day even though the body and mind respond better to night rest.
The biological factor makes daytime sleep weak in terms of quantity and quality. Typically, pilots spend extended periods awake when they attend to flight logistics before a flight. This makes the layover period even shorter. Citing these arguments, the International Civil Aviation Organization (2015) states that the late flight of the return trip has a greater chance of inducing fatigue. When one pilot is tired, the co-pilot is compelled to offer an additional leg that was not planned. This is due to pilots’ need to conform to their productivity index.
Early shifts and multi-leg incidences characterize short haul flights. Waking up early can be problematic, especially when the previous change was late at night. When the last day is overwhelming, pilots need more sleep to rejuvenate the energy they spent on multi-leg flights (Salazar, n.d.). Pilots who are deprived of sleep suffer attention, concentration, and alertness deficiencies.
Effects of Fatigue among Commercial Pilots and its Impact on Aviation Safety
The 1944 Chicago Convention states that fatigue is a deadly threat to aviation safety. It is, therefore, rational to argue that the security of air operations depends on optimal levels of alertness. During flights, pilots burn calories that cause exhaustion of the brain and the body. Therefore, fatigue is a normal biological response of the body for any individual despite their health index (Zaslona et al., 2018). Leading on from this, successful air operations require a high degree of efficiency and concentration, aspects that fatigue thwart.
The dynamism of aviation makes it prone to technical issues while airborne. Pilots are trained to respond to such matters with professionalism and critical thinking. When fatigued, pilots may fail to respond effectively to emergencies by omission or commission. In cases that pertain to the former, fatigue hinders the pilots and cabin crew from thinking of the best response. Commission, on the other hand, may cause pilots to act in a manner that worsens the situation (Salazar, n.d.). Significantly, mishaps that happen during landing are often caused by fatigue.
Examples of General Aviation Accidents in Which Pilot Fatigue Was Cited as a Contributing Factor
Several aviation accidents have been caused by fatigue. In particular, failing to avoid obstacles and executing crucial protocols have been cited as causes. A plane belonging to Air Berlin narrowly avoided an accident in May, 2012, when the pilot called in for an emergency landing in Munich, citing fatigue as the reason. The passengers and crew of Colgan Air Flight 3407 were not as lucky as their plane crashed in February, 2009, en route to New York (J.A. Caldwell & J.L. Caldwell, 2016). In May, 2010, an Air India Express aircraft from Dubai crushed on a hillside during landing. The captain lost concentration, which led to a runway overshoot despite the First Officer calling three times to inform the pilot to go around.
Positive Relationship Between Sleep Deprivation and the Risk of Accidents with Pilot Fatigue as the Mediating Factor.
In aviation, operational and technological demands are addressed from time to time. However, the need for sleep as a factor of operation has remained unevolved. A study by J.A. Caldwell and J.L Caldwell (2016) illustrates the strong relationship between circadian rhythm and aviation accidents. The study points at 02.00, 06.00, and 16.00 hours as peaks despite the changes in traffic volume. Moreover, circadian desynchronization and 24-hour duty-rest cycles deprive pilots of sleep, which causes fatigue (Castro et al., 2015). To promote efficiency and minimize risks, it is mandatory that implicated stakeholders reconsider the impacts of sleep. In so doing, performance will improve due to better memory, judgment, concentration, decision making, fixation, and reaction time among pilots. Despite the technical efforts in simplifying aircraft to increase performance, fatigue will always make simple tasks complex. Pilots that get enough sleep have a better concentration span when working. To this end, the safety of the aircraft is enhanced.
A Discussion on Adequate Sleeping as a Strategy for Fatigue Risk Management
Scientists recommend that people should sleep for 8-9 hours per day. However, due to factors such as health conditions, adequate rest varies. Having inclusive shifts is, therefore, a probable approach of ensuring each pilot satisfies their sleep needs (Zaslona, O’Keeffe, Signal, & Gander, 2018). Aviation operators should also operationalize mandatory shift workers as a regulation. This strategy will improve the sleeping periods for pilots as they will have a constant timetable. Another factor to consider is sleep timing. Long-haul flights span different time zones that may deprive pilots’ sleep cumulatively. These factors must be adhered to when developing strategic plans regarding risk management in aviation.
Caldwell, J. A., & Caldwell, J. L. (2016). Fatigue in aviation: A guide to staying awake at the stick (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Castro, M., Carvalhais, J., & Teles, J. (2015). Irregular working hours and fatigue of cabin crew. Work, 51(3), 505–511. doi:10.3233/WOR-141877
International Civil Aviation Organization. (2015). Fatigue management guide for airline operations(2nd ed.) [PDF File]. Retrieved from https://www.icao.int/safety/fatiguemanagement/FRMS%20Tools/FMG%20for%20Airline%20Operators%202nd%20Ed%20(Final)%20EN.pdf
Phillips, R. O., Kecklund, G., Anund, A., & Sallinen, M. (2017). Fatigue in transport: A review of exposure, risk, checks and controls. Transport Reviews, 37(6), 742-766. doi:10.1080/01441647.2017.1349844
Salazar, G. J. (n.d.). Fatigue in aviation [PDF File]. Retrieved from https://www.faa.gov/pilots/safety/pilotsafetybrochures/media/Fatigue_Aviation.pdf
Zaslona, J. L., O’Keeffe, K. M., Signal, T. L., & Gander, P. H. (2018). Shared responsibility for managing fatigue: Hearing the pilots. PLoS ONE, 13(5), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0195530