Flying Drunk... Or too Tired to Care?

Fatigue has been proven to be a contributory factor in a large number of air accidents and incidents, but its consequences for aviation safety are still underestimated. The authorities and airline managements must therefore ensure that it is properly managed, to avoid any safety risks due to pilots' fatigue. Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) are a new type of tool they can use and should promote to reduce fatigue risks.

A Few Stats...
According to a recent Time magazine study, 18 hours without sleep can impact on the human body as severely as heavy drinking. 23 hours without sleep is said to have a similar performance impairment as a blood alcohol content of 0.12-well above the driving limit! Actually, a NASA air safety database revealed that fatigue may have been an underlying cause in many more incidents and accidents than previously thought; and many accident reports mention fatigue as a factor, such as in the 747 Korean Air crash at Guam in 1997. Knowing the detrimental effects of fatigue, how can the industry still ignore it? Fatigue must be proactively managed as any other safety issue and included in accident prevention programmes.

Consequences of Fatigue
Adequate sleep and rest are essential to allow the body to recharge. Laboratory tests have proven that sleep deprivation can be at the origin of personality changes, confusion, disorientation and hallucinations, which are not welcomed in a cockpit or in a flight safety programme. Indeed, as sleep deprivation increases, the probability of error increases and safety is compromised. Fatigue, sleep, rest and the issues surrounding flight and duty do affect aviation safety. For example, a fatigued person often cannot diagnose a problem and make a decision as to how to rectify it. This is of course a critical risk management process.

So, What Solutions?
Chronic fatigue cannot be cured by a night of sleep, but may require a job change, holiday or professional help. Unfortunately, fatigue is not easy to diagnose, the reason why a proactive safety strategy is required for dealing with it.

Although many personal strategies can help pilots manage sleep, it is the whole aviation system that needs to work together to achieve flight safety. Regulators must ensure adequate fatigue prevention/elimination rules are in place and properly implemented. Managements have to manage fatigue risks, by ensuring, for example, safe scheduling and rostering and suitable accommodation to allow for proper rest. Pilots must report any deficiency of the system and should develop personal fatigue management strategies.

Fatigue Risk Management Systems
All such solutions have to be implemented in a formal systematic way. To this purpose, Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) are a new scientifically-based tool, which can help monitor and manage fatigue risks. European and national aviation authorities as well as individual airlines should therefore promote their use in order to prevent fatigue and, at the same time, air accidents. However, as the FRMS concept is a new one, its implementation will be a challenge for many airlines. It is therefore crucial that the FRMS guidelines, currently developed within ICAO, are closely followed and that flight crews are fully involved in the process.

Based on an article by Capt. Gavin McKellar