From Keflavik to Brussels – When Does Europe Wake Up?

When the 188 passengers boarded the charter plane in Antalya (Turkey) to return to Iceland, on 27 Oct 2007, they did not know that their airplane would experience a serious safety incident – ending up beside the runway of Keflavik airport. Pilot fatigue and inadequate in-flight rest facilities were key factors contributing to this incident – which luckily left all on board unharmed – according to the recently published Incident Report. The report makes several safety recommendations addressed to the EU Institutions. Regrettably, these recommendations are likely to slip off the runway too, when attempting to land on the Brussels Institutions' slippery political ground.

Published on 29 January 2009, the Icelandic Accident Investigation Board's report is outspoken as to the role that pilot fatigue played in this safety incident. After having reported for duty at 09:05 in the morning of 27 October, the incident occurred at 01:55 the following day – at a time when the pilots' "body clock" was programmed for sleep and their natural performance levels were at their lowest. It occurred after a flight duty period of 17:20 hours and at a time when the three pilots had probably "not experienced restorative sleep in over approximately 19 hours."

As a result, the report concludes that "it is very likely that the crew was fatigued and that the fatigue led to performance impairments" with a likely "direct impact on the landing and its outcome." All of the investigators' recommendations to the EU safety bodies focus on ways to prevent pilot fatigue.

The incident also sheds light on the issue of on-board rest facilities. Many airlines claim that economy seat areas are adequate to provide flight crews with rest and sleep. The Keflavik incident shows this is wishful thinking – reconfirming earlier scientific findings on this subject. The report states that "restorative sleep is usually only obtainable in dark, quiet environments where skeletal muscles can fully relax. Any diversion from the optimal configuration (dark, quiet and horizontal) will decrease the probability that the crew will be able to experience restorative sleep [...]. The risk of fatigue and fatigue related errors would therefore remain present." For the Keflavik incident, the report concludes rest facilities "were less than optimal for sleep and decreased the likelihood that rest periods would help to reduce the risk of fatigue related errors."

To let the wider aviation industry benefit from the investigation's findings, the report makes concrete recommendations to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The first one is that Europe should "modify the flight and duty time regulations to take into consideration factors shown by recent research, scientific evidence, and current industry experience to affect crew alertness." EASA should also "ensure operators have adequate on-board rest facilities [...]" which "[...] ensure a dark and quiet (most silent area on-board aircraft) environment where the skeletal muscles can fully relax in a horizontal position." Finally, EASA is called upon to "develop guidance, based on empirical and scientific evidence, for operators to establish fatigue management systems [...]" as well as "a methodology that will continually assess the effectiveness of fatigue management systems implemented by operators [...]."

Will EASA and the European Commission listen to and act upon these safety recommendations? Since late September 2008, EASA has had a scientific study on its desk. Carried out by a group of renowned fatigues specialists, and based on a wide body of fatigue research, it demonstrates that today's EU fatigue rules are insufficient to protect against the risks of fatigue-induced incidents and accidents. The study makes concrete recommendations on how to change these rules – including on some of the issues that were at stake in Keflavik.

7 months later – and after strong airline lobbying against this study – neither EASA nor the Commission have undertaken any concrete steps to address the study's findings. Undoubtedly, the 188 passengers of the Keflavik flight will be delighted to learn about such inaction – as would be any passenger. Is it time to inform Europe's travelling public about this inaction? Or do we have to wait for Keflavik to become London Heathrow, Frankfurt Main, Madrid Barajas or Paris Charles de Gaulle airport?

Read a copy of the Investigation Report (PDF)