Price of fatigued pilots

Mangalore air crash is yet another grim reminder


Sweta Ranjan | June 21, 2011

The latest report on the Mangalore air crash regarding the suspicion that Air India might have “tampered” with the pilots’ flight roster and forced Capt Zlatko Glusica to fly despite fatigue has revived concerns over fatigued pilots. Even a year after the Mangalore air crash last year killed 158 people, a lot remains to be done to mitigate pilot fatigue.

The Flight and Duty Time Limitation (FDTL) regulations that govern work-rest schedule for pilots in India were formulated way back in 1992. Since the DGCA continues to follow these regulations, many pilots are forced to fly up to 12 hours at a stretch. Though the DGCA amended the FDTL rules in 2007, it did not implement the amended regulations.

Scientific studies prove that the 1992 regulations are outdated and a threat to aviation security in today’s air traffic.
“We are going through economic fatigue,” said an Air India pilot who did not wish to be identified, “Fatigue is of different kinds. Today most of the AI pilots are going through mental fatigue as we have not been paid for the last three months. How does the airline expect us to work under no stress if we don’t receive our salaries till the 20th of the month? How many months can we continue to work without being paid.”

Another pilot requesting anonymity said, “The rule says that if a pilot lands between 12 midnight till 5 am he can’t fly till 5 am next day but think of the fatigue level of a pilot who is rostered to fly one day at 5 am, next day at 5.05 am and again the next day at 5.10 am which is technically correct but this kind of a roaster will definitely show its toll on the health of a pilot.”

The FDTL rules cannot be broken or waived off except in emergency-like circumstances but most of the private airlines are openly flouting the regulations. A senior commander from Indigo Airlines has another concern. “Most of the private airlines make maximum use of the pilots,” he laments, “They use their employees to the extreme levels of flying like 35 hours a week/130 hrs a month which does not give sufficient amount of rest to a pilot. Flying is a high pressure work, it’s not like working in a call centre.”

He adds, “Another matter of concern for the pilots is that gradually over a period of time there is deterioration in the layover facilities provided to a pilot. While most of the airlines are working on cost-cutting they are offering a three-star or a four-star substandard hotel to a pilot which has no recuperation facility.”

While across the world, the trend has been to increase the rest hours or rather structure the duty hours in such a way that cockpit crew fatigue is kept under check to as much extent as possible the DGCA has not even managed to implement its amendments.

Pilots blame the “archaic” 1992 regulations for the Mangalore air crash too. A senior commander of Air India says, “This is a very sensitive issue. A pilot needs good amount of rest before taking off an aircraft as it is a safety matter for the passengers as well.”

Another senior AI commander believes that the rules should also take into account that flying at night is different from flying in the day. “The regulations also need to take into account the fact that pilots flying across different time zones undergo significantly more stress,” he said, “In 1992 there was very slow air traffic and there were mainly turbo propeller (slow speed aircrafts) and we could manage to do six landings but now we fly jet engine aircraft and six landings in a day is very difficult as it also disturbs the pilot’s body scientifically. With more than four landings a pilot loses the ability to react and he is left with extremely slow reflexes. Split-second decision-making ability of a pilot is completely lost.”

In such a dismal scenario, the ray of hope comes from the DGCA’s recent attempt to draft new FDTL rules for which the regulator has issued a circular in the form of a Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) seeking feedback from airlines to cut the maximum daily flying and duty hours of pilots from 10 to eight hours in the domestic sector and also lower the number of flying hours in the international sector.

As the Mangalore air crash shows, the DGCA’s failure to follow-up on its revision of rules can prove very costly indeed.



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