Fatigue in the Cockpit Today

Despite scientific studies showing that fatigue could jeopardise the safety of air operations, data about the prevalence of fatigue across Europe is scarce. Yet, a 2010-survey by the Norwegian public service broadcaster, NRK, revealed that half of the pilots have fallen asleep or dozed off while on duty, with almost 4 out of 5 pilots stating they have felt too tired to be in the cockpit. Following the example of NRK, ECA Member Associations took up the challenge of surveying thousands of pilots across Europe. The results, gathered in a ‘Barometer on pilot fatigue’ confirm that pilot fatigue is common, dangerous and an under-reported phenomenon in Europe.

The results uncover that pilot fatigue is a common phenomenon with a significant majority of the pilots (60-90%) having experienced fatigue while on duty and a third of the pilots having experienced episodes of micro-sleep and/or dozing off in the cockpit without agreeing this beforehand with their colleague. Some surveys show that over 50 per cent of the pilots have already fallen asleep while on duty in the cockpit.

  • The surveys also shed light on the potential danger related to aircrew fatigue. More than 3 out of 5 pilots in Sweden, Norway and Denmark have made mistakes due to extreme tiredness.
  • Over 50% of surveyed pilots experience fatigue as impairing their ability to perform well while on flight duty.
  • 4 out of 5 pilots have to cope with fatigue while in the cockpit, according to polls carried out in Austria (85%), Sweden (89%), Germany (92%) and Denmark (93%).
  • A common indicator of the problem is that fatigued pilots are prone to fall asleep or experience episodes of micro-sleep in the cockpit. In the UK (43%), Denmark
  • (50%), Norway (53%) and Sweden (54%) the surveyed pilots reported falling asleep involuntarily in the cockpit while flying. In the UK, a third of the pilots said to have woken up finding their colleague sleeping as well. 65% of Dutch and French pilots stated they have trouble with “heavy eyelids” during flight.
  • Yet, fearing disciplinary actions or stigmatization by the employer or colleagues, 70-80% of fatigued pilots would not file a fatigue report or declare to be unfit to fly. Only 20-30% will report unfit for duty or file a report under such an occurrence.

Such under-reporting of fatigue has been confirmed by an independent survey of 50 UK Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs, i.e. the doctors who regularly examine pilots)in April 2011. 80% of the AMEs surveyed believe fatigue is a medical issue and mention fatigue is known to reduce the physical and mental ability to operate safely. Previous studies have shown that fatigue affects cognition and leads to an impairment of performance, which is difficult to self-assess. Yet, more than a half (52%) of AMEs think that it is unlikely a routine medical check would pick up on pilots suffering from fatigue.

These surveys show that already today there is a fatigue problem in Europe’s cockpits and they do confirm what scientific research has established: Today’s FTL rules are insufficient to protect against fatigue, and strict rules are needed, based on medical and scientific evidence.