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Fatigue among pilots in the growing space of civil aviation

Amid the nation’s growing air traffic and expanding aircraft fleet, pilot fatigue appears to be a dark cloud, with senior captains and pilot groups stressing the need for a more serious effort to address the concern. While regulations on flight duty time limits and specific rest periods are in place, a more scientific approach as well as a better fatigue reporting system will help tackle the “silent danger of fatigue”, according to senior captains.

In a sign that fatigue is a worrying factor in India’s fast-growing aviation space, a recent survey of 542 pilots by the NGO Safety Matters Foundation revealed that most of them admitted to falling asleep without the other crew’s planning/consent or experiencing microsleep.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) – a global grouping of airlines, including airlines from India – said fatigue has long been identified as a potential safety risk and the industry has developed extensive Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) to manage the risk of fatigue.

The senior captain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the silent menace of fatigue needs to be addressed more aggressively as it affects his cognitive abilities and mental states. For example, performing two consecutive nights of duty in multiple sectors mostly leads to fatigue and the existing fatigue reporting system is not popular among pilots, a captain associated with a leading airline told PTI.

Under the fatigue reporting system, the pilot can report to the safety department of the respective airline and the report is then sent to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

With similar views, a senior pilot and an officer in ICPA said that there is a lot of fatigue among pilots and it is also tiring to spend two consecutive nights.

The pilot also said that the fatigue reporting system is not good and stressed the need for a scientific study by the DGCA to address the situation.

The Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA), which represents around 900 narrow-body pilots at Air India, wrote to the DGCA on September 12 urging the regulator to scrap all current regulations on flight crew fatigue management and formulate new norms.

Airline Pilots Association of India President Capt Sam Thomas told PTI that a serious view has not been taken in India on the issue of managing fatigue among pilots, including the need to ensure adequate rest for pilots.

He emphasized that fatigue risk management is not an isolated issue and fatigue issues are likely to be more likely with the expansion of the aviation sector.

“Flight safety should be a key priority for both the regulator and the airlines.”

ALPA India has around 500 members and is the Indian branch of the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association (IFALPA).

Thomas also said there should be discussions between pilots, the regulator and airlines and other stakeholders about the right framework for managing fatigue risks.

The DGCA was not immediately available for comment on the pilot fatigue issue.

When contacted, Vistara said the airline follows all standard processes and norms to provide the crew and pilot with timely breaks and departures.

The carrier recently introduced a fully automated crew scheduling solution. It allows crew and pilots to indicate their lifestyle preferences, which are then automatically included in their individual flight schedules.

Queries regarding the issue sent to IndiGo, Air India, Air India Express and SpiceJet remained unanswered.

Senior pilot Captain C.S. Randhawa, who also served with the DGCA, said the rest period for pilots is defined in the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) and is also based on a medical study.

He also pointed out that if a person says they are tired, it may also mean that they have not used their rest time properly.

“The provision for extension of duty time is in the CAR, but the rest period is also extended accordingly… if (some) pilots claim that the FDTL (Flight Duty Time Limitation) was set without any scientific study, then those pilots should prove (it),” he said.

Mark Searle, Global Director of Safety at IATA, said fatigue has long been identified as a potential safety risk and the industry has developed extensive SARPs on fatigue risk management.

He emphasized that SARPs are based on an extensive and evolving body of research, including ongoing feedback from safety-critical workers, and that these SARPs are revised as more scientific data becomes available.

“Crew fatigue, and in particular ensuring that the crew is fit to fly, is central to any operation and especially during busy summer schedules,” he told PTI.

Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia said in August that India’s civil aviation sector is poised for phenomenal and healthy growth in terms of air passengers, aircraft fleet and airports in the coming years.

By 2027, the country is expected to have up to 40 million air passengers, both domestic and international, and nearly 1,200 aircraft.

A survey of 542 Indian pilots also found that 54.2 percent of respondents suffered from severe excessive daytime sleepiness, while 41.4 percent of pilots self-rated as having mild daytime sleepiness.

“The impact of fatigue on flight safety can be analyzed in that 66 percent of respondents admitted to falling asleep without the planning/consent of the other crew or experiencing microsleep. 31 percent of pilots also answered that they were close during the flight.” which may have led to an incident attributable to fatigue,” the survey said.

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