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Pilot fatigue – a new report reveals safety management deficiencies

Microsleeps in the cockpit, insufficient rest opportunities to prevent cumulative fatigue, extending flight duties beyond the legal maximum: a newly released report paints a poor picture of fatigue risk management in European aviation. The report, ‘A fatigue survey of European Pilots’ by the aviation safety management consultancy Baines Simmons, analyses the responses from nearly 6.900 European pilots from 31 countries. The report identifies not only significant indicators of fatigue ahead of the busy summer period, but also structural shortcomings in how European airlines manage their fatigue risk. Airlines under the safety oversight of several countries – in particular Ireland, Malta, Spain, and the UK – stand out as the worst performers on many of the aspects covered by the report.

Based on data collected in July, the report shows that fatigue was building up in the cockpits already ahead of the summer peak season. 3 out of 4 pilots experienced at least one microsleep whilst operating an aircraft in the past 4 weeks – and one quarter reported 5 or more microsleeps. Furthermore, 72.9% of pilots reported having insufficient rest to allow them to recover from fatigue between duties. In addition, the report reveals a concerning trend of flight duty extensions, with nearly one in five pilots using Commander’s Discretion (CD) to extend flight duties twice or more within the past four weeks. Moreover, over 60% of pilots expressed varying degrees of concern about potential negative consequences if they were to refuse to extend a flight duty under CD. 

“These are worrying signs and clear indications that fatigue safety risks are not well managed in many European airlines,” says ECA President Otjan de Bruijn. 

The Baines Simmons report comes out just two months after the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) warned about the risk of increased aircrew fatigue during the summer and called upon airlines to plan with sufficient buffers and to refrain from relying on the pilots to systematically extend maximum flight duties. However, the report’s findings point into a different reality.

“This is very concerning,” continues de Bruijn. “Especially, as the results cover a period before and at the very beginning of the peak of summer operations. If these are the results we are seeing already in June and July, fatigue levels in August can have gone only one way – upwards!”

The report also shows another, more structural dimension, which is present not just during the summer operations: “The data [,,,] demonstrated that there are challenges and inadequacies in the fatigue risk management arrangements of operators across all countries represented, and gaps in the oversight provided by regulators.”, while adding that “there are clear indications of improvement being required, and a lack of standardisation across European states”.

An example of how fatigue risk management is not implemented as effectively as it should be is fatigue reporting. Only 10.8% of the pilots responded that fatigue reports have led their airline to make operational changes to improve safety, only 13.2% selected ‘the company communicates well with crew about fatigue reports’, and a mere 12% stated they trust their airline’s reporting system. As Baines Simmons observes: “Without an effective reporting system, the airline is unlikely to have an accurate picture of fatigue in the operation, limiting their ability to manage fatigue risk by implementing effective mitigations.”

A trend which stands out across the survey data is that airlines registered in Malta, Spain, Ireland, and the UK, score consistently lower on fatigue management, reporting, rest, or use of Commander’s Discretion and fear of refusing it. 

“Ireland and Malta – two countries with a certain reputation in the aviation industry, and home to major transnationally operating airlines – stand out in this survey but not in the positive way,” says Philip von Schöppenthau, ECA Secretary General. “This raises a number of questions, and it is clearly up to the authorities, as well EASA, to look deeper as to what is going on in those countries and in the airlines under their oversight. We hope that EASA and national authorities across Europe will take a careful look at the report and take the necessary action to ensure that airlines provide effective fatigue reporting systems and manage properly their fatigue related safety risks.” 

Technical Notes:

The Baines Simmons report is based on data collected through a European-wide, ECA promoted survey among airline pilots, running from 1 to 22 July 2023. Several questions used a 4-week ‘look-back’ period, thereby covering the ‘ramp-up’ to the busy summer travel season (i.e. since early June), rather than the peak of operations. Participation in the online survey was voluntary, and whilst the questions – which had been designed in collaboration between ECA and Baines Simmons – were mandatory. The analysis contained within the report was undertaken by Baines Simmons as was the drawing of conclusions and recommendations.

The report aims at facilitating ongoing enhancements in fatigue risk management at European airlines. Additionally, it aims at providing valuable insights to bolster the safety oversight of both national and European authorities. Lastly, it lends support to EASA's goals of promoting standardization among European nations.

Note to editors

ECA is the representative body of over 40,000 pilots from across Europe, striving for the highest levels of aviation safety and fostering social rights and quality employment for pilots in Europe. 

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