Partner of a Pilot
The Candid Diary of an Airline Pilot’s Girlfriend

Pilot Fatigue (A poignant addendum to my last post)


Bf has just landed from a VERY short stay in the West Coast of the States. He left at 9am on Friday from one UK airport on his body clock flew the 9.5 hour trip there (arrived at his hotel late in the evening on his body clock, but early afternoon in the States), had less than 24 hours there and then had to fly home throughout the night from West-to-East (the worst direction for jet-lag). He was horribly jet-lagged and landed at 6am this morning in another UK airport.

He said that he has never felt so tired on a flight; though he has done other similar trips like this one previously. He did not wake feeling well rested; and was definitely experiencing ‘fatigue’ by mid flight. He said he actually nodded off in the cockpit for less than 10 minutes! They were in the cruise at the time.  He remembers looking at the time, and then waking suddenly a few minutes later feeling guilty and angry with himself.

The experience jolted him awake, and he felt awful. Obviously this was just a few moments, and the Captain had been alert for this time. However, I think this really highlights the reality of how common this situation is! Normally, on long-haul trips with minimal rest break at destination; Bf’s airline will have a second FO operating too, so that there are 3 pilots on board. For some reason, this trip didn’t meet that criteria.

To put this into perspective; Bf prides himself on his professionalism.  He has had letters of commendation sent to the chief-pilot about his flying and general performance. He is extremely dedicated, and would (and does) make sacrifices from his/our personal lives to ensure his commitment to his career.

His airline is actually very good at staying well-within the CAA regulations, and do not flout the law.  Yet this level of fatigue still occurs. This is part of the reason why you don’t have a single pilot operating the flight; and part of the reason why auto-pilot was invented.

I fear that in the current aviation market, with ‘cost-down’/budget driven commerce, the consumer can expect to hear about more incidents of this nature. Pilots are expensive (not to mention jet fuel etc), hotels are expensive; yet tickets need to be cheap.  Hmm… Obviously there is a conflict here. Each day that a crew is resting at a destination is eating into the tight profit margins. Airlines that don’t streamline their operations to ensure that crew resources are not ‘wasted’ at destination for longer than necessary will fail to grow, and become strangled by their more aggressively micro-managed competitors.

Budget airlines like EasyJet are dominating the short-haul market with their 20 minute turnarounds and bus-like attitude to ‘no-frills’ flying.  The business-planning, micro-management strategy is inspired financially, but it does come at a cost. Luxury naturally, but also, arguably, quality in other areas too. In order to remain competitive-other airlines are also having to make compromises too.

JetBlue also caused a stir about 18 months ago, and ended up in hot water-when:

they outfitted a small number of pilots with devices to measure alertness. Operating on a green light from lower-level FAA officials, management assigned the crews to work longer shifts in the cockpit – as many as 10 to 11 hours a day – rather than the eight hours the US government allows for this type of flying. Their hope: Showing that pilots could safely fly far longer without exhibiting ill effects from fatigue! (see full story here)

As the ‘significant other’ of a pilot; it worries me that my normally intensely astute, switched-on, professional man is working himself to this level of fatigue. Had the Captain also succumbed to sleep, had they missed radio calls, had they not woken for a longer period of time; they could have faced a similar situation to the pilots in my post below.

I told Bf about the go! pilots’ story. He said that he has known of quite a few captains that fell asleep on short-haul flights. He reminded me that many FO’s would have young babies at home and may experience ‘sleepless nights’. Obviously, if you feel ‘fatigued’ prior to a flight as a pilot; you are supposed to report to crewing as not being fit enough to fly.  However, the likelihood of a pilot actually doing this, with the pressure that they feel to adhere to their strict schedules; and knowing the financial implications of their doing so on the airline, is that they would probably try to avoid doing so if possible.

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