"Promoting the science of aerospace medicine"

3rd of July 2012

Cool heads must prevail in fatigue debate

Pilot fatigue is a hot topic right now because of the ongoing deliberations at the European Aviation Safety Agency, which looks as if it will allow airlines to increase pilot duty hours under certain circumstances. All the pilot unions are opposed to this. 

The Air Berlin incident, where the crew of an Airbus A330 requested priority landing because of fatigue, is likely to muddy the waters because of the strong feelings on both sides of the argument. 

This was certainly an unusual - possibly unique - event, but there is a heightened awareness now of fatigue risks, and that cannot be a bad thing at a time when pilots are working harder than they have ever done. Because fatigue really does create risk. 

If these pilots were fatigued to the point where they could see their performance was being affected, they did the right thing. The very least the "pan" call would have done for them is to ensure that controllers kept the procedures simple. In 2001, a Crossair Avro RJ100 crashed fatally on approach to Zurich when the crew were given a runway change during the descent, and the official report ruled that fatigue was a causal factor in that accident. 

Ultimately, pilots have to make the decisions about how to mitigate the effects of tiredness. This is one way of doing it. Air Berlin, in its statements, has been diplomatic and responsible. Let's keep it that way.