Airlines and pilots have to work together intelligently to make the best use of new research about pilot fatigue and rules about age

Airline pilots work better when they are tired. This is an official finding in a long-term analysis of pilots in real work situations. It is not a wind-up, but it is not the whole truth either and does not pretend to be. What it does show is that some long-held industry preconceptions about how to manage pilot fatigue need reviewing.

Meanwhile, the new International Civil Aviation Organisation standard that allows the commanders of large passenger aircraft to be aged 65 - provided the co-pilot is less than 60 - is about to be implemented. And it looks as if the USA and France, which have resisted these changes particularly sternly, might adopt the new standard.

Slowly but surely, the air transport industry is feeling its way forward on the two highly contentious issues of flightcrew fatigue and pilot maximum age. Why now? On fatigue, the University of South Australia's Centre for Sleep Research (CSR) has been conducting studies of pilot performance in real work situations. Although analysis continues, some new proposals are already emerging for better ways of managing pilot fatigue than the traditional application of flight-time limitations (FTL) regulation.

Even a child knows that sleep is the ultimate restorative for the body and mind, so we should not be surprised to find the CSR has established that measured pilot performance is related much more closely to the quality and quantity of sleep he/she has had during the last 48h than total duty time - or the time off-duty. Off-duty time is sometimes not used by a pilot for sleeping, but far more often a pilot can try to sleep and fail to do so. Physical fatigue, says the CSR, is closely related to the length of duty time but mental fatigue - which leads to slow, poor decision-making and dulled critical faculties - is related to lack of sleep.

Of course, sleep is not available unless a pilot has the opportunity to take it. That opportunity could be personal time off at home or at a hotel, or for ultra-long-haul flightcrew on duty it may be the use of a bunk in the rest cabin while other pilots in the augmented crew take over. Studies of pilot sleep on the Singapore Airlines Singapore-Los Angeles route showed that some pilots got eight hours of proper sleep on the 16h-plus service, while a few got only 30min. Most, of course, got something in between.

The CSR proposes that slavish devotion to the FTL regulations alone is an inadequate defence against fatigue. In the future it may well be that what - today - are called FTLs, will be agreements between pilots and airlines on a duty regime that gives flightcrew a reasonable lifestyle, with the chance - for example - to make a success of marriage and raising children. Not just to get some sleep. Meanwhile, the CSR suggests, flightcrew are going to have to be more disciplined about managing sleep patterns to achieve identified minima. If, sometimes, pilots do not achieve the minima, the airlines will have to work with the crew to establish a risk-alleviation plan for the flight that acknowledges that one or both of the pilots are going to be performing at less than an optimum level. That could mean taking the affected pilot off duty. A template for identifying risk thresholds is one of the tools the CSR has been working on.

Meanwhile the CSR has established that pilots can, with discipline, manage their own fatigued state by recognising it, being careful in their tasks, and applying good crew resource management. This works particularly well with long-haul crews. But it is always a risk, especially if high workload situations - bad weather, for example - arise, and crew decision-making is definitely slowed down.

The message, in the end, is that fatigue is caused mainly by insufficient sleep, so any safe airline has to acknowledge that fact and work with crews to ensure sleep levels can be, and are, maintained.

Regarding pilot maximum age, an extract from the current US Federal Air Surgeon's Medical Bulletin is illuminating. It quotes former Federal Air Surgeon Jon Jordan who, in 2000, wrote in an editorial about the age 60 rule: "Few people like inflexible, discretionary rules, and I am among them. Unfortunately, how to solve the problem of deterioration in performance with ageing and its impact on aviation safety is an enigma. I only wish I knew the answer." The answer is a similar approach to age-related risks as the CSR is proposing for sleep-deficit risks: be aware of the risk and adopt practices - like rostering a younger co-pilot with an older captain - that provide multi-layer protection.

Source: Flight International