Fatigue strikes again: Nobody in control
Two airline pilots on a long-haul flight into the UK are reported to have both fallen asleep, leaving the plane on autopilot with no-one to take control in the event of an emergency.
According to reports of UK media, the captain and his co-pilot decided to take turns in having short naps during their flight on 13 August 2013. This incident happened less than two hours after take-off, and the crew are said to have been able to sleep for only 5 hours prior to the flight – during the summer holiday period when flight schedules are particularly demanding for aircrew.
Controlled ‘napping’ which is agreed with the second pilot is a practice which is tolerated by some airlines. While this practice can provide relief in exceptional situations when fatigue suddenly strikes, it is also regarded as an emergency measure. In surveys around Europe, a third of airline pilots have admitted to have fallen asleep at controls and many report to have made operational errors due fatigue and loss of alertness.
These safety incident reports come only 4 days before the European Parliament votes on the new rules for EU-wide Flight Time Limitations (FTL), which aircrew and fatigue experts have repeatedly criticized for containing serious safety loopholes. It is a reminder that safe and science-based FTL rules are needed to prevent such dangerous events. On 30 September, Members of the EU Transport Committee will have the opportunity to say NO to this much contested FTL proposal.