Fatigue is something that hits you when you are physically and/or mentally exhausted, in common terms dead tired. Severe cases of fatigue makes you fall asleep sitting up, unable to make quick and clever – and correct – decisions and you should not be allowed being closer to anything more complicated than a potato peeler. So what does that have to do with aviation?
In the days before the advent of low-cost airlines, things were easy. You organized an airline with all things that were necessary to fly with maximum safety, i.e. well maintained aircraft with adequate fuel reserves, well trained and well rested crew members both in cockpit and cabin etc. – and then you figured out what passengers would have to pay for all that. Those days are gone. Today passengers have been made to believe that flying is something very inexpensive, lured by low fares possible only if you really cut corners wherever possible. Low-cost airlines has led the way and regular airlines struggle to follow suit in order to stay alive. So where is the problem – if there is one, especially since flying is safer than ever?
In order to increase productivity, which translates to among other things getting more working hours out ot every employee, duty times for pilots have increased to sometimes three times as long as for truck drivers. Authorities who should know better listen to the requests from airline managements and grants permission since everything is going so great. Then it suddenly did not. A aircraft fell down killing everybody on board and a few unfortunate souls on the ground. Crash investigation revealed that the captain probably was suffering from fatigue. On top of that it turned out that neither the captain nor the co-pilot had the required skills to handle the difficulties that preceded the accident. The major airline – for which the passengers had bought their tickets – had sub-chartered a cheaper colleague to run some less profitable routes. Authorities suddenly knew very much what to do, and decreased allowed duty times, increased demand on training and experience and did exactly what they should have done before the crash. A trend was reversed, at least for some time, but only after a fatal accident. It is called blood money. Since flight safety is almost 100% these days, and as such its greatest foe, nobody is really interested in pouring billions into something that runs so well – just to reverse goings on that might eventually be dangerous.
Another spectacular accident where an airlines from a major airline disappeared over the south Atlantic revealed some lack of pilot training that today is addressed with whatever extra costs necessary. Same story over Algeria, over the Java sea, after take-off in Asia and during landing in San Francisco, to name a few. Could have been prevented.
Back to fatigue. A trans-Atlantic flight with the more lenient European duty-time regulations are today manned with only two pilots, as opposed to previously three or even four crew members. In order to not have two stare-eyed guys with micro-sleep on short final, a new procedure called ”controlled napping” has been introduced. Some call in ”the one man show” which used to be strictly forbidden. One pilot sleeps for about three quarters of an hour while the other one tries to stay awake. Airlines handles it in various ways. Some makes a stewardess check on the one who is supposed to be awake every fifteen minutes, and occasionally when she enters te cockpit there is unfortunately a ”no-man show”. This is again working until something really dangerous happens. One pilot, who woke up after deep sleep, made a violent maneuver, as not to collide with Venus which shone brightly that night, injuring sixteen people on board. But that was not dangerous enough.
You get what you pay for. That’s something to consider next time you sit there at 35.000 feet. But how can passengers vote with their feet when they have no information. It does not say in the ticket what corners the airline in question has cut. But if you rejoice in having paid almost nothing for your fare, maybe you should think twice. The again – if autopilots are as good as they seem to be today – why worry.