Pilot fatigue has long been stated as a concern in the airline industry. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has previously proposed setting limits on the duration that pilots can fly. Fatigue leads to slower reaction times and impaired concentration and decision making. 18 February 2016, new EASA Flight Time Limitations (FTL) rules (EU Regulation 83/2014) came into effect. The aviation industry has shifted to a fully harmonised European set of rules aimed at preventing air crew fatigue from constituting a risk to flight safety. Aviation accidents are still extremely rare, but when they have occurred, figures show that 80% are a result of human error, with pilot fatigue accounting for 15-20% of human error in fatal accidents.
In 2012 the Pilot Fatigue Barometer showed that pilot fatigue is common, dangerous and an under-reported phenomenon in Europe. Pilots at many airlines are allowed what is called "controlled rest on the flight deck", which means they can put their head back and nap in their chair for short periods, typically under 40 minutes, as long as the other pilot is retaining a close watch over the flight during the cruise period. Scientific research has confirmed the fatigue problem in Europe’s cockpits. In 2012, the FTL (Flight Time Limitations) rules have been insufficient to protect against fatigue, and strict rules were needed, based on medical and scientific evidence. 1 October 2012, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published its proposal to amend the current EU rules on flight and duty time limitations and rest requirements (FTL) for commercial air transport: allowed duty periods at night were reduced, rest for flights with time zone crossings was significantly increased, and new rules were introduced for limiting crew standby.
Fatigue has been linked to a number of previous high profile aviation incidents. It was listed among the causes of a TransAsia flight which crashed in a heavy storm on Taiwan's Penghu island July 2014, leaving 48 dead. In another fatal accident, March 2016, Flydubai flight 981 from Dubai to Rostov-on-Don in Russia crashed in bad weather as it approached the airport, killing 55 passengers and seven crew. In the aftermath, a number of theories were put forward to explain the incident, including pilot error and possible fatigue among the crew.
Airline pilots describe being pushed to the limit and warn about the impact on flight safety in a cache of leaked documents that give a unique and occasionally hair-raising insight into the aviation industry. The Guardian has seen the air safety reports of 413 Flydubai flights written in the two-month period. In more than 40 reports, pilots describe concerns about fatigue. One of the pilots of FlyDubai claimed that the number of hours he was expected to work was potentially illegal. Flydubai said it had “never and would never ask its crew to operate outside legally permitted hours”.
According to the Commission Regulation (EU) No 83/2014 of 29 January 2014 amending Regulation (EU) No 965/2012 laying down technical requirements and administrative procedures related to air operations pursuant to Regulation (EC) No 216/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council: "The (European Aviation Safety) Agency shall conduct a continuous review of the effectiveness of the provisions concerning flight and duty time limitations and rest requirements contained in Annexes II and III. No later than 18 February 2019 the Agency shall produce a first report on the results of this review." One of the measures mentioned in the Regulation is that "The operator shall provide initial and recurrent fatigue management training to crew members, personnel responsible for preparation and maintenance of crew rosters and management personnel concerned."
The European Commission of the European Union has assigned the NLR (Nederlands Lucht- en Ruimtevaartcentrum) Air Transport Safety Institute to investigate flight and duty time limitations and rest requirements for aircraft pilots. New regulations allowing airlines to use of Fatigue Risk Management Systems to manage risk are bringing potential benefits to safety and efficiency, but also new responsibilities to airlines, flight crew, pilot associations and oversight authorities.
For airlines, adding more pilots on sectors or changing rosters could come at a financial cost. The carriers naturally want to maximise their profitability by having their highly paid pilots fly as many hours as possible within the rules. But they are also interested in safety, as serious incidents and crashes cause brand damage and lawsuits they want to avoid. Ever increasing competition in aviation will cause a continuing pressure on flight and duty time limitations. But still, pilots are no machines. The European Cockpit Association (ECA) developed an online FTL Calculator – allowing each pilot to calculate the legal limits for their daily flight duties.[number of readers: 701]