The long-hours culture for airline pilots puts passengers at risk

Tiredness and loss of concentration can be extremely dangerous mid-flight, reveals one pilot

Yesterday, pilots across Europe protested over excessive flying times, which they claimed were putting passengers at risk. The British Airline Pilots' Association blamed new EU rules about flying hours for leaving their members "too tired to fly". Here, one British pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, explains the impact of the long-hours culture.

I find it incredible that pilots are allowed to work longer hours than truckers – there needs to be much more awareness of fatigue in our profession. My airline has done a lot of research into it, but there are many others that aren't so understanding.

I know of two night flights from Athens that had to be intercepted [by Greek military planes] because the crew had fallen asleep. It worries me that I am sharing airspace with pilots from airlines that perhaps aren't as good at managing fatigue.

People think flying a plane is just sitting down, but it is incredibly tiring. You need to concentrate constantly; it is noisy, dirty, the hours are long, and you can be on late shifts so it can be exhausting. Sometimes I'm just too tired to work and I have to tell my employers I can't fly – they have to listen.

I currently work five early shifts from 6am to 4pm, where I'll usually do four flights. Then I'll have three days off, and then do five late shifts from around midday to midnight or 1am. I'm lucky because my airline keeps night shifts in blocks together, but some airlines chop and change, which means pilots' body-clocks are too mixed up and they aren't getting the rest they need.

Potentially serious mistakes happen reasonably frequently all around the world due to fatigue, and how you are able to deal with them depends on your tiredness levels. I know myself that staying alert becomes more of a challenge. I've never fallen asleep, but you do notice your processing speeds slow down. Things often happen, such as a change of runway, so you need to be able to deal with them.

The airline industry is having real problems at the moment, so airlines are cutting back staff and making the rest of us work the maximum legal allowance just to compete and keep the prices low. Passengers' expectations of low fares are driving us to our knees.


Interview by Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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