Source: Australian Transport Safety Bureau
Why the ATSB did the research
Fatigue is an inevitable risk in aviation. As it cannot be completely eliminated, it must be managed. Data on fatigue and its impact on air transport safety is generally only obtained if there is an incident or accident. As a result, there is generally a lack of understanding of the baseline level of fatigue in day-to-day Australian air transport across operators.
To provide the air transport industry, regulators and policy makers with further insights into industry perceptions of fatigue, the ATSB conducted a survey of commercial pilots engaged in passenger, freight, and aeromedical operations in the second half of 2016. To understand the reported level of fatigue during normal operations, the survey aimed to discover the amount of sleep and rest obtained by pilots, as well as their perceptions on the length of rests and duty times. The survey also aimed to capture data on the organisational aspects of fatigue, including how pilots feel about removing themselves from duty because of fatigue experienced and how they think management perceive this behaviour.
What the ATSB found
The majority of survey respondents reported they were sufficiently well rested by the end of their last duty. Over half of pilots reported having 7 hours of sleep or more in the previous 24 hours, and over 60 per cent reported having more than 14 hours in the previous 48 hours, at the end of the last flight. The survey also found a small but significant number of pilots, 10 per cent and 17 per cent, who reported obtaining less than 5 hours of sleep in the previous 24 hours, or less than 12 hours in the previous 48 hours, respectively, at the end of their last flight. These sleep thresholds have been shown to be associated with impaired performance.
Less sleep on duty was more prevalent for international and domestic jet airline pilots than other air transport pilots (regional, charter and aeromedical). While around one third of the respondents reported obtaining the same amount of sleep at home as they did while on duty, around half of international and domestic pilots reported obtaining less hours of sleep on duty than at home. About 15 per cent of international pilots responded they had no rest during their last international flight.
Domestic pilots completed duties on a stand-by day more often than other pilots. Some believed the rest period between duties was too short, duty periods were too long, and access to food during duties was more difficult compared with other pilots, indicating some pilots within this group have negative perceptions of rest opportunities provided by their employers.
Over 90 per cent of pilots indicated their employer offered a formal process for removing themselves from duty due to fatigue. About one third of respondents indicated they removed themselves from duty at least once in the past year, mostly between one and three days. The pilots who removed themselves from duty generally perceived their actions left a negative impression with management (with the exception of aeromedical pilots), and did not feel comfortable doing so.
Responsibility to manage the risk of fatigue lies with both the individual pilot and organisation. It is the individual pilot’s responsibility to use rest periods to obtain adequate sleep and to remove themselves from duty if they feel fatigued. It is important for operators to implement policies to reduce the likelihood of fatigue-related issues through rostering practices and by providing an organisational culture where crew can report fatigue in a supportive environment. The results of this research suggest that operating in circumstances conducive to fatigue is an ongoing challenge for a proportion of Australian air transport pilots.