The case of a groggy Air Canada pilot who mistook for the planet Venus an oncoming military jet has raised new questions about the dangers of pilot fatigue on long-haul flights and the best way to mitigate them—particularly as airlines around the world come under increasing pressure to cut costs and improve efficiency amid rising fuel prices and a shaky global economy.
Many countries, including the United States, require a third, relief pilot on most longer-haul flights so that tired colleagues may leave the cockpit and sleep. However, Canadian regulations are considerably more lax, pilots say. Air Canada’s collective agreement with its pilots, for example, only requires a third pilot in the cockpit if the maximum flight time is more than nine hours and pilots are on duty for more than 11 hours, according to a report by the Transportation Safety Board. In the case of the Toronto to Zurich route flown by Air Canada Flight 878, the scheduled flight time was just under eight hours, so a third pilot was not required in the cockpit, even though an eastbound overnight flight from North America to Europe is widely understood to be particularly disruptive to the body’s natural sleep cycles. “Night flights from North America to Europe have an inherent risk of fatigue for North American-based pilots,” said the TSB report.
Transport Canada currently recommends that sleepy pilots on such flights take a “controlled rest,” which is essentially a short nap in the cockpit while the other pilot monitors the plane. The idea is to give pilots a chance to combat the effects of fatigue during long-haul flights so that they are refreshed and alert before landing, when their full attention is required. Under Transport guidelines, the nap should last no longer 40 minutes because after that a pilot can enter a deep phase of sleep that is more difficult to shake off. Even so, pilots aren’t allowed to touch the controls or complete any other flight duties for 15 minutes after waking up because of the risk of “sleep inertia,” or the groggy feeling that one feels immediately after waking up.
Only one pilot is allowed to take a nap. The other is supposed inform the cabin crew so that they can call the cockpit after 40 minutes. Why? To make sure both pilots are awake. As scary as it sounds, a recent poll by the British Air Line Pilots Association found that 43 per cent reported falling asleep in the cockpit, and of those, 31 per cent claimed to have discovered the other pilot asleep when they woke up. The TSB’s investigators also identified a similar risk. “Since pilots take controlled rest at times when they are most sleepy, which is likely to be at a similar time to the other pilot due to the circadian rhythm of fatigue, there is a high risk of night-time controlled rest resulting in both pilots falling asleep,” the report said.
The pilots of Air Canada Flight 878 didn’t follow all of the rules. The co-pilot was allowed to sleep for 75 minutes and the cabin crew wasn’t informed. In addition, the captain immediately briefed the co-pilot about the approaching military plane immediately after waking. Groggy and disoriented, the co-pilot initially thought the planet Venus was the C-17 military plane and then later badly misjudged the altitude of the approaching aircraft.
Air Canada has said that it has already taken steps to address the issue, and is studying the report to determine whether more needs to be done.
However, Air Canada’s pilots’ union argue it’s time for Canadian regulators to take the threat of pilot fatigue more seriously. “I think the problem is that he’s sleeping in the cockpit in the first place,” Barry Wiszniowski the safety chairman of the Air Canada Pilots Association, told the CBC in a recent interview. “In Canada, we have the worst rules in the planet. We are working with the regulator trying to move forward and bringing our regulations in line so they are based on the science of fatigue.” The TSB appears to agree there’s a potential problem with the current approach. “While controlled rest mitigates fatigue to some extent, studies have not been able to show whether it is sufficient in order to fully mitigate fatigue during this type of flight,” said the report into the Air Canada incident. “More effective rest can be obtained with the use of a relief pilot on eastbound flights.”
* This article was edited to correct a mistake introduced during a previous editing process.