By David Learmount in London

Airline pilots across the industry are flying more hours than they used to. European low cost carriers (LCC) admit that what used to be the regulatory limit for the total annual flying hours a pilot could work is now a target that must be met if the airline is to remain competitive.

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© Dave Bell/ Jasper Graphics

This is just one pilot lifestyle change intrinsic to working for LCCs. And with other types of airline increasingly being forced to imitate the management techniques these cost-conscious carriers employ, some of these changes are creeping into other sectors of the industry. “Low–cost carriers brought with them targets rather than just a rationale for operating. Airlines across the planet are now targeting increased pilot usage,” says EasyJet director of safety and security Capt Peter Griffiths.

Certain aspects of an LCC pilot’s lifestyle appear more benign than the work regime in other types of airline: Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary boasts his pilots sleep in their own beds every night, enabling a more stable family life. This is because Ryanair’s network is all short–haul, and it operates from 16 bases across Europe using locally based crews and aircraft. EasyJet, the other dominant European LCC, operates the same multi–base system and its flight and cabin crews are home at the end of every day. This sort of regularity of lifestyle is more than long–haul, charter or night freight carrier flightcrew can claim.


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But LCC pilots fly multi–sector days with rapid turnarounds – 25 or 30 minutes – during which there is scarcely time for them to leave their seats. In the case of both EasyJet and Ryanair, the airspace they operate in is congested, complex and multinational. Griffiths says EasyJet is fully conscious of the intensity, and believes the effect of workload on pilot fatigue is underestimated, and largely disregarded in most flight-time limitation (FTL) regulations – except in respect of the number of sectors allowed – with flying hours considered the main contributor to fatigue.

Ryanair has, until recently, been rostering pilots on a pattern of five early-start days and three days off, followed by five late-start days and three days off – 5/3/5/3 – which is popular with crews because of its predictability, says director of air and ground operations David O’Brien. But despite what looks like a generous rostering system, the airline has found that many of its pilots hit the 900h annual limit specified by Europe’s Joint Aviation Regulations – Flight Time Limitations (JAR FTL) before the year is over – often two months earlier. As the airline runs the same rostering year for everyone – 1 April to 31 March – this can mean a crewing crisis as the end of March approaches. O’Brien says this reflects the efficiency of Ryanair’s operations.

Head of flight operations Ray Conway says Ryanair “gets more flying per duty hour out of its pilots”. A part of the system that enables this efficiency is “Crew–Dock”, the computer interface – identical in the operations offices at all Ryanair bases – at which crews obtain the essential trip briefing, including flight plan, notams, weather forecasts, company operational notices and all other pertinent information.

Ryanair pilots, while not disputing the fundamental basis for Conway’s claim, say the airline paints a rose–tinted picture of reality. What actually happens, they say, is that a pilot reporting at the specified beginning of his/her duty period faces a chance there will be a shortage of serviceable Crew–Dock stations in the operations room, so have to wait their turn. As a result crew have to arrive earlier than briefed to be certain of on-time departure. There can be further delay and stress, they say, if some printers do not work and crew have to wait to print out information they need to take with them.

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© LG Photo

"If you are pushing your assets to the extreme of what you can get them to do, what you want to know is: where's the boundary?" Peter Griffiths, EasyJet

Over the last two months, because the 5/3/5/3 roster has been causing crews to reach their 900h flight time limit before the year-end, O’Brien has been holding “town hall meetings” with off-duty crews at each of Ryanair’s bases to propose what looks like a dream roster: five earlies/four off/five lates/four off. A massive majority of the crews decided it was too good to be true: their reaction – except at the London Luton base – was to turn down the new roster because, while the five duty days refer to flying, the four off refer to “non-flying periods”. Mostly these would be time off, but compulsory annual medical checks, any form of training including recurrent checks in the simulator, and ground school would have to be taken during the four non-flying days. Finally, six times a year pilots would be liable to operate five days on, two days off if it became operationally necessary.

O’Brien’s explanation of the 5/4/5/4 deal to crews is complex, including the way it affects the annual leave entitlement. This may explain why the pilots rejected it in favour of sticking with the popular 5/3/5/3 routine, with training and medicals on duty days, despite being offered a better pay package if they accepted the 5/4/5/4 proposal. Many Ryanair pilots told Flight International it would be more difficult to plan their private lives under the proposed scheme. But Ryanair will gradually introduce the 5/4/5/4 plan anyway, O’Brien says, by making it applicable to all new–hire pilots, anyone who moves from one base to another, and any individual pilot who chooses to accept it.

Maximum flying hours

Meanwhile, looking back two years, Ryanair’s efficiency in getting maximum flying hours out of its crew was becoming a problem for competitor EasyJet, which was also worried that the most efficient roster pattern UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations would allow was not the optimum for safety. Ryanair’s operations – wherever they are based in Europe – are overseen by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), whereas the CAA oversees all EasyJet’s operations. The CAA’s FTL rules, embodied in Civil Aviation Publication (CAP) 371, are in line with the JARs, but exceed the requirements in some respects. “CAP371 doesn’t work in practice – you have to go through contorsions to get reasonable work out of pilots,” says Ryanair’s O’Brien, explaining Easyjet’s problem. However, the IAA simply requires that Ryanair comply with the JARs, which the 5/3/5/3 roster does.

In 2002, to back up JAR approval, says O’Brien, Ryanair asked Dr Mark Rosekind, president and chief scientist of Alertness Solutions, to examine its rostering system. Basically, Rosekind, a psychologist and specialist in fatigue and sleep, found that the roster provided an “excellent” combination of stability, rest opportunity and duty limits. Former head of the UK CAA Safety Regulation Group Michael Willett came to the same conclusion, as did Dieter Horst, director general of German aviation authority LBA.

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© David Snow

LCC pilots fly multi-sector days and with rapid turnarounds during which there is scarcely time for them to leave their seats

Back in the UK, EasyJet was arguing that CAP371 forced the airline to adopt a roster that was resulting in a higher pilot fatigue risk than necessary because it had been written before the “high productivity model” operated by the big European LCCs had evolved. The airline approached the CAA to discuss how to proceed. “The move toward a new rostering protocol was driven by the internal uncertainty of the projections within CAP371 for a high productivity model,” says EasyJet’s Griffiths.

In managing its FTL regulations, the authority has used algorithms developed by UK company Qinetiq’s Centre for Human Studies to predict levels of performance and alertness in crews on given rosters, says CAA flight standards officer Derek Brown, who specialises in crew fatigue issues. Brown challenged Griffiths to prove EasyJet’s theories. If the airline could show safety at least equivalent with crews operating under a CAP371–approved duty regime, he said, the CAA would consider approving the alternative rostering pattern.

Risk management

EasyJet funded a fatigue risk management research programme involving 350 of its pilots, and in which the CAA took part. Two years later, Brown says, the study is still running, data is still coming in, and knowledge about rostering best practice still developing. But Griffiths’ approach has been vindicated. The airline has been cleared for a roster that is more productive, and several different crew performance measurements have all shown that the new roster – outside the limits of the un-amended CAP371 – has produced significant pilot alertness improvement, along with a decrease in pilot mistakes and non–standard operating procedures.

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© Paul Dopson

"Ryanair is not having to chase down Boeing 737 pilots" David O'Brien

Both airlines say that, despite their rapid expansion rate, they have no problems attracting staff. Ryanair’s O’Brien says the carrier “is not having to chase down [Boeing] 737 pilots – with the exception of some command requirements for the next two years”, while EasyJet’s new chief executive Andy Harrison says: “We haven’t had significant issues in terms of getting the quality of people we need.”

The CAA’s Brown challenges this, saying “EasyJet has not been good at predictive resource planning” in terms of the number of crews per aircraft as its fleet expands. The aviation industry as a whole, he says, “is not nearly as good at this as manufacturing industry, which has operated effective predictive resource management for some 30–40 years”.

Harrison says there is no question of compromising on safety or quality to accommodate the 15% annual growth EasyJet is achieving. “Having an incident could well finish the company. Just the perception that there might be even a marginal increase in risk would be very bad for business,” he says. The airline’s safety audit results have reassured him that “EasyJet has a top–notch safety management systems team”. He is referring especially to Griffiths’ continual risk assessment work.

“If – the same as every other LCC model – you are pushing your assets to the extreme of what you can get them to do, what you want to know is: where’s the boundary?” says Griffiths. “The reason we are doing [the flight crew scheduling study] is so that we know where the boundaries are, so that we can put in a safety margin and remain within it. Nine hundrd hours per year is the target, but you know even 600h badly managed can cause problems. If you are taking them to a higher extreme you want to know that you’ve got it right.”

Both airlines operate flight data monitoring (FDM) systems, and they back up the data gathered with crew written reports. EasyJet took up FDM three years ago, about the time it acquired Stansted–based airline Go, which had used the system since starting operations. Chief operating officer Mike Szucs says the first issue that FDM revealed in detail “was unstable and rushed approaches”, and the locations at which they happened. “Systematically we educated the crews in the risks and, having done that, we give them discretion to use their best judgement.”

Griffiths says the written reports are also important: “The FDM will always tell you what went wrong, what happened to the aeroplane. The report provides the ‘why’ – why did it happen?” Across EasyJet’s fleet of nearly 100 aircraft Europe-wide, he says, there are about 600–700 pilot reports filed each month. Ryanair’s Conway says when FDM was introduced in May 2004 it had two noticeable effects: “Pilot reporting increased dramatically, and sporty flying characteristics tended to die out.” He adds: “It has thrown a huge safety net around the airline. It is a much more conservative operation now.”

But the safety net is not bullet–proof. A Ryanair internal report documents a flight on 7 September last year that carried out a series of abandoned approaches – one of which came close to disaster – to airports near Rome before finally landing safely (Flight International 24–30 January 2006). According to the report, the crew of a 737–800 inbound to Rome Ciampino suffered “almost complete loss of situational awareness, both lateral and vertical”, while attempting a diversion to Rome Fiumicino because of storms at Ciampino. The report ascribes this situation to high workload in turbulent weather and failure to follow standard operating procedures.

Report held up

The airline informed the IAA and Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) that the event had occurred, but Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary admits the carrier later “screwed up” by failing to send them the final draft of its report. Italian air accident investigation agency ANSV’s decision to investigate came four months after the incident because, it claims, it was only handed details by the Irish AAIU in early January. Why the pilot “lost situational awareness” will not be revealed until the ANSV inquiry reports.

Meanwhile some Ryanair flights into Stansted – the airline’s biggest single operations base – on 24 April, as well as those by aircraft from other airlines, are under investigation by the Irish AAIU and UK Air Accident Investigation Branch to determine whether they disregarded weather minima to land in poor visibility when it was well known to pilots that runway lighting was reduced because of maintenance. Whether the decisions by several pilots to land in conditions reported by Stansted as below minima was exacerbated by perceived schedule pressure or by traditional “get-home-itis” should emerge from the inquiry now under way.

The most pertinent questions about the pressures on pilots operating the “high productivity model”, as EasyJet calls it, seem to be emerging from groundbreaking pilot fatigue work by the CAA’s Brown as the authority continues working with EasyJet. Unlike the favourable paper appraisals on Ryanair’s pilot work-pattern model, this is a hands–on study that is examining external – not just rostering – influences on pilot performance and alertness. There has been no study of the effect on stress of the relationship between Ryanair’s management and its flightcrew, which not only keeps websites including the Ryanair European Pilots Association busy, but also the Irish judiciary.  Vigorous internal pilot debate about employment and operational issues is common to all airlines. It is just a matter of degree.

Source: Flight International