Commentary: Is Fatigue Fatal?

An accident blamed on the catch-all “pilot error” could have a single preventable cause.

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If a pilot flies when he is fatigued, he is in violation of FAR 91.13, which states: “No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” The FAA considers that this one rule will cover everything from sleepy pilots to those who have sprained an ankle playing softball, overdosed on their meds, drunk too much, suffered an emotional upheaval, or gone through anything else that would make them unsafe in the cockpit.

Some airlines say that their policy permits pilots to abandon a flight due to fatigue with a guarantee of no recriminations. Some pilots say, “Yeah, right. Try it and see what happens.” Yet others maintain that the option is there at least in part so that those who apportion blame after an accident can say, “It was her fault; she should have taken herself out of the cockpit if she was that tired.”

“On my last month at American, I ran into one of those creeping-delay situations,” recalls retired American Airlines captain Robert Besco, who holds a Ph.D. in industrial psychology and has written extensively about aviation safety. “They wanted us to take one more leg and I said no. The chief pilot got all over my case about it, the copilot was still on probation and wouldn’t stick his neck out and agree that we were dead tired, so we went ahead and flew from Oakland back to Dallas. We didn’t crash, so it must have been safe.” Unfortunately, the burden of adhering to the duty-time regulations falls largely upon pilots, who are asked to make go/no-go decisions just at the time when their judgment is likely to be compromised.

The Airline Transport Association avers that because pilot fatigue has not been proven to be a problem, more restrictive duty-time regulations would add unnecessary costs to airline operations. In an era of $1.98 airport security, $300 Blue Light Special round trips to Europe, cattle-car coach travel, and a near-total abandonment of customer service in what is, after all, simply a service industry, perhaps it’s time to pay some costs once thought unnecessary.

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