August 18, 2008

‘Pilot Fatigue a Major Issue the World Over’

By Manju V

MUMBAI: On February 13 this year, flight 1002 of Go!, an airline based in the US, flew past its destination airport, General Lyman Field in Hawaii by about 26 nautical miles.

The Bombardier CL-600 with 40 passengers on board did not respond to air traffic control instructions. A subsequent investigation by the US's National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that both the pilots had unintentionally fallen asleep.

"The pilots were on the third day of a strip schedule that involved repeated early start times and demanding sequences of numerous short flight segments," said a NTSB report on safety recommendations, dated June 2008, highlighting the dangers of fatigue.

The report is just one of the 32 such human fatigue-related safety recommendations issued by the NTSB since 1997. The above incident was just one of the many recent ones (the rest were fatal) dissected in the report where cockpit crew fatigue was found to play a major role in such instances.

Pilot fatigue has been the talking point in countries such as the US, Australia and UK for a while. In 1997, it became a major issue when 223 people died after the fatigued pilots of Korean Air flight 801 crashed a Boeing 747-300 into Nimitz Hill, just 5 km from the Guam airport.

Air safety expert M Ranganathan said, "Killers in Aviation, a complete study by world aviation experts on the fatigue factor involved in the Korean air crash, shows how critical decisions on pilot rest rules can be. Following that, countries all over the world started reducing duty hours and increasing rest periods".

Ranganathan pointed out that Australia, which had the best safety record, had carried out an extensive study on pilot fatigue. The 2007 CAR (new pilot rest rules) issued by India's DGCA was based on those findings.

The issue of cockpit crew fatigue got a hearing in India only when the DGCA (in May this year) decided to revert back to the rest rules framed in 1992 by putting a scientifically-backed set of rest rules in abeyance (CAR 2007).

"The reason? "Airlines had to recruit 35% more pilots, which meant added expenses," said a senior commander.

Defending their decision-against the petition filed by the Joint Action Committee of Airline Pilots demanding the implementation of the 2007 CAR-the DGCA said airlines could not afford the additional expenses.

"They argued that as airlines in India were going through a lean patch. such a rule would strangulate the industry. But aren't most airlines all over the world making losses?" asked the commander.

The DGCA also pointed out that no carrier would want its planes to crash and so would not demand something that compromised safety.

"It is as good as saying that the earlier air accidents took place as the airlines concerned wanted their aircraft to crash," he said, adding that carriers across the world opposed rules that entailed additional expenses. It was the job of the aviation regulatory authority to see that profits did not get priority over safety.

"In the US, although the FAA has long recognized that pilot fatigue is a safety issue, the organization has done little to enforce regulations to limit the number of flight hours, saying that the extreme complexity of the issue does not present appropriate material for regulatory activity. But the NTSB has consistently been after it to review the rest rules and issues recommendations to the effect time and again," said an expert.

The recent NTSB recommendation was sent to airlines after a probe into the overshooting of Pinnacle Airlines flight 4712 in April revealed that the mishap occurred as the pilots were at the end of a 14-hour duty day during which they conducted four landings in challenging weather.

"India has the DGCA, but it does not have a body like the NTSB. There is no board to rap the DGCA or ask it to take decisions in the interest of air safety," he added.

(c) 2008 The Times of India. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.