Spanish aircraft amongst those at risk due to pilot fatigue management issues

Whilst airline passengers faced days of disruption this week due a technical fault affecting UK air traffic control, safety was the reason for the disruption as the volume of traffic had to be reduced as controllers operated manual systems, but whereas safety was put first on this occasion, a report coincidentally highlighted this week puts air safety at risk due to pilot fatigue, especially in countries such as Spain and the United Kingdom, two such countries who were amongst those who suffered the most delays following the UK situation.

The report “European Pilot Fatigue Survey” paints a bleak picture of the management of fatigue risks in European aviation, especially in Spain, Malta, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, according to a statement from the pilots’ union, Sepla.

The study, carried out by the aviation safety management consultancy, Baines Simmons, highlights that the airlines registered in these four countries obtain the lowest marks in fatigue management; the lack of rest opportunities to prevent accumulated fatigue; reporting and the extent of use of Commander’s Discretion (CD). The survey has been carried out from the responses of almost 6,900 pilots from 31 European countries during the month of July.

In the case of Spain, 63.1% of the pilots indicate that the management of fatigue risks is not well or mostly well managed by the airlines and only 8.5% of them trust the system the company has for reporting fatigue. More than 57% of those surveyed show moderate or high concern about the negative consequences on the part of the airline of the refusal to use the figure of the commander’s discretion. Likewise, more than 60% of the pilots indicate that they have not had adequate recovery time to avoid accumulated fatigue.

For the president of the Spanish Union of Airline Pilots (Sepla), Óscar Sanguino, “this European survey on pilot fatigue in the summer is a serious warning to the Spanish aviation industry.” Sanguino points out that “there are airlines that operate in Spain that have not been prepared, despite having been warned by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to manage the risks due to pilot fatigue in periods of high air activity such as summer and this could have affected air safety.”

Furthermore, the study shows that fatigue in Europe was already increasing in cabins before the peak summer season. 3 out of 4 pilots experienced at least one microsleep while operating an aircraft in the past 4 weeks, and a quarter reported 5 or more microsleeps. Additionally, 72.9% of pilots reported having insufficient rest to recover from fatigue between their flights.

In addition, the survey reveals a worrying trend in the extension of flight duty limits, with nearly one in five pilots using commander discretion to extend flight duty two or more times in the past four weeks. In addition, more than 60% of the pilots expressed concern about the possible negative consequences if they refused to extend a flight duty under CD.

“These are worrying signs and clearly indicate that aviation safety risks from fatigue are not well managed at many European airlines,” says Otjan de Bruijn, President of the European Pilots Association (ECA).

The Baines Simmons report comes just two months after EASA warned of the risk of increased crew fatigue over the summer and called on airlines to plan with sufficient margins and refrain from relying on pilots to systematically extend the limits of flight activity. However, the report’s findings point to a different reality.

“This is very worrying,” continues de Bruijn. “Especially since the results cover a period before and at the very start of the peak summer trading season. If these are the results we are seeing already in June and July, fatigue levels in August can only have increased.”

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

An example of how fatigue risk management is not implemented effectively is fatigue reporting. Only 10.8% of pilots responded that reports of fatigue have prompted their airline to make operational changes to improve safety; 13.2% selected “the company communicates well with the crew about fatigue reports” and only 12% said 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.”

One trend that stands out in the survey data is that airlines registered in Malta, Spain, Ireland and the UK consistently score lower on fatigue management, reporting, rest or use of discretion and the fear of rejecting it.

“Ireland and Malta, two countries with some reputation in the aviation industry and home to airlines operating transnationally, stand out in this survey, but not in a positive way,” says Philip von Schöppenthau, ECA Secretary General. “This raises a number of questions and it is clearly in the hands of the authorities, as well as EASA, to further investigate what is happening in those countries and the airlines under their supervision. We hope that EASA and national authorities across Europe will carefully examine the report and take the necessary steps to ensure that airlines provide effective fatigue reporting systems and properly manage fatigue-related safety risks.”