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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Flying Fatigued:

Threat and Error Thursday:

The FAA Pilot Fatigue rule has been splashed around the world. The government has taken a serious look at the impact of our fatigued pilots. The FACT sheet explains the changes. Unfortunately they are starting in two years, not now, and for some reason the freight operators don’t seem to count.

Will these rules solve the problem?

A few questions for you:

  • Is it ever possible for pilots to be rested on international flights, flying the backside of the clock and sleeping on the plane?
  • The FAA’s pending regulation change includes enabling pilots to be on duty for 17 hours with four crewmembers. Two of theses pilots take their rest at the beginning of their trip... quite often, just hours after they awoke from a good night sleep. Therefore, they will not sleep during their break, and often not resting on the entire flight. Will these rules impact the fact that half the crew won't sleep during their break due to the timing?
  • 17 hours awake is equivalent to an alcohol level of .05. How many pilots are flying drunk from fatigue?
  • Is it possible to schedule international flight crews in a way to not be fatigued?

One of my many airlines had called me at midnight on a day off and sent me on an International trip. All pilots were called at the same hour. None of us were rested. Why did we take the trip? Kids in college. Mortgages due. Pay cuts, and unable to make ends meet. Being good company people. A multitude of reasons, take a pick. It's very hard for a pilot to say, "I can't." At that hour we have coffee, wake up, and we're good to go. But at the other end of the trip, what seemed like a good idea at the beginning, turns out to not be such a good idea.

As I read the new regulations, I wonder, “Will this prohibit those midnight calls to crew members off duty?”

While the regulation states that the crew-members have the right to say they’re fatigued, there are airlines out there that “fatigue” is called the other F-word. What sounds good on paper, isn't reality in the workplace. Besides, the corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders. Right?

I was recently asked about commuting pilots and how we did this to ourselves. The problem is that airlines open bases, pilots move there, put their kids in schools and close the base. How often can a pilot uproot his/her family chasing the job? Then the housing crisis... who can sell their home to move anyway? Companies merge, seniority changes, positions are lost. Sometimes the commute is do to not wanting to disrupt our families any more than we have to. Sometimes it's pure financial infeasibility to move. So we commute.

I’m not sure what the answer is. What are your thoughts? How can we be the best we can be while working within the system? How would you fix this dilemma? Is it a problem?

Maybe we must realize that regulation can't fix this problem due to massive contingencies. Perhaps this should be a self monitored event. And yet, how do you turn down a trip when times are tough? A challenge.

General aviation needs to be aware of the power of fatigue as well, and not push themselves to fly in their not physically ready to.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Enjoy the Journey.

XOX Karlene

If you haven't had a chance yet, pick up a copy of Flight For Control. This question and more lurk through the pages.

NOTE: If you can't see where to comment, click on the reply on the last posted comment. Then the comment link will open below. You can click on that link, and comment box is there. Blogger. What can I say?


  1. Hi Karlene, heard a very good point made on the Flight podcast, of which you are a member. Unashamed plug!!. That you see GA pilots pre-flight their aircraft meticulously but how often do they preflight themselves. We've all done it, rolled up to the field for a GA flight and by the time you are ready to get into the air your feeling the effect of the day at work or the late night. I'm a lot more careful about this now than I used to be. Preflight the plane & yourself.
    Cheers & good luck with the book.

    1. I love that... Preflight yourself. I think this is something we have to "decide" to do...before we get tired. When we're tired,we're tired, we don't think clearly as we should. Kind of like driving after drinking. If we decided before that first drink we are NOT driving, there is a much better chance of not, that after we've had a few. Thanks for the great comment!

  2. These are real challenges - with our operations (light planes flying over hostile terrain) I accept the losses, financial ones, not human nor mechanical ones. IF the airline bosses were on tight financials, then I would say 'great team work' but what I see is that the fat cats like tuna and lots of it, leaving the dried bread and water to the crews who live at the sharp end of the stick - and we all know what happened to the cat that liked tuna.... and if you don't... read the book....

    1. Oh NO! Not the book. lol. That's funny. And yes, if you shamelessly plug... I should too!

      Best Book:

      You have a great outlook! It's hard for the companies to really understand because they see success, and achievement, a the pilots' "can do" attitude. And usually we do. But those few times that something happens, I'm thinking that's why there is insurance. How do you insure the lives of families? You don't. We as pilots much "Pre-flight ourselves"

      Thanks for a great comment!

  3. It's amazing the disparity in how the FAA deals with the fatigue issue between companies. I've worked for one place that the feds were absolute sticklers on it, telling us that if we are even asked why we call fatigued, that the scheduler will lose their job. At another place I've been told that if you call fatigued they will fire you for something else in the near future, and the FAA looks the other way...

    1. Out of 8 airlines, you know I've scene the full spectrum too. I was in indoc during my initial employment and told "why" we wouldn't have to take a trip. But then was told about the "F" word. It was said in new-hire class... "Don't do it." On the FAA's defense, I wonder if they really know? If not, I would hope they'd look into it.
      Thanks so much for the comment!

  4. Kar, in the "old days" before computers, I honestly think it was possible to fly without being too fatigued.

    The people who put the schedules together at Northwest used their collective brains and thought about whether they would "want" to fly the trip they were concocting. There was a lot of down time - wasted time, the airlines would say. But that extra time on the ground gave you a chance to recharge your batteries. And to love your job.

    I remember saying that computer scheduling would be great - more flexibility - and it could have been. Instead, they used the computer to pack our flights as close as legally possible.

    Most of us, as commercial pilots, set high standards for ourselves. We fly safely and do whatever it takes (naps, etc.). But there are limits and I think we are reaching them in today's airline environment. Burn out. Illness. Attitude.

    1. Kathy, that's a great point. Those computers were used to squeeze the most out of us. But that's a good business decision for maximization of resources. Right? Yes... Burn out. Illness. Attitude. I am still sick from my last excursion on the road to fatigue. Thanks for your comment. I do think we need to set our boundaries. But it's just hard sometime.

  5. Hi, I may not be a pilot, but 17 hours of duty is definitely too much. As you know its all about saving costs these days. From what I know, flights that are more than 7 hours are required to have an extra pilot to change duties during the flight. After all, you guys are humans just like anyone of us. I know my pilot friends have been complaining to me how tired they are flying on 4 hours sector and back, making it a 8 hrs trip for that day.

    I really hope they listen to you and changes to be made. Its hundreds of passengers in your hands and the importance of this fact should be the deciding factor.


    1. Charles, so true on the too long on duty. I'm thinking regulation is one thing, but we all need to do our parts as pilots too. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  6. Many questions requiring many answers in this post and in our industry.
    Canada I know is pretty much the same with regards to max duty and rest periods which to be honest, doesn't seem to suffice most of the operations that pilots see everyday.

    I do like the idea of taking into account crossing timezones. I also would like to see some changes in the regs with regards to daytime flying compare to night time flying. Whether we like it or not, and try to adapt to it or not, we as humans are hard wired to rest during the dark hours, at night. So freight dogs that mostly operate at night need different sets of regs.

    The regs were written by lawyers, but it needs revamping.

    And with regards to saying no. How about putting more pilots on the line? Increasing pay. Those things help us when we need to say "NO" and call in fatigue. The whole industry has become a race to the bottom and something needs to be done for this, and as pilots we must all stick together. I'm not saying flying should be only luxurious like before but bring back some decency to it.

    But like all things, easier said than done. But there's always work to be done.

    1. Ramiel, you are so right! It does appear the rules were written by lawyers.
      More pilots and higher pay is the answer! Some domestic pilots are flying so much, they're exhausted because they're not in one place long enough to catch up. The International pilots' bodies are so confused as to when, and where they are or should sleep, it takes days to catch up.
      This is what's needed. Take better care of the pilots who have your lives in their hands. Thanks for the great comment.

    2. And as for the flying public, I don't see why (most) they always complain about raising ticket prices and always want to fly cheap.

      What you give is what you get. They don't know what the effects of the ticket prices do to the pilots and inherently safety. This is why I think people should read your book, and others alike, that expose the kinds of things pilots have to go through and that accidents happen due to these things.

      What's a life worth?

      ps. loving the book btw :) i'm still trying to get people to read it...maybe we can all order together or somethin' haha!

    3. Thank you so much! You are getting the essence of the truth in fiction. I believe this too. Did you get to the part about who our future pilots will be? Okay... lets have a book signing party! I'll come and sign them and we can have a book club party. :) You have passion and that is what we need to keep the airlines safe!

  7. I'm not sure how often a pilot can be called to duty when they are off duty, but maybe airlines should put a limit on how many times they can call an off duty pilot, like once a month? I don't think it's possible for any pilot to really be 100% when flying international routes when you have 10+hr routes with a short layover of 24-72hrs, to me that doesn't seem like enough of time for your body to adjust to the change in time zone. If a pilot has to commute, maybe be at the base at least 48hrs before check in and maybe the company can at least reimburse the pilot for hotel or motel stay in their allowance. since this would be business travel? Also if a pilot is being MOVED from a base, let's say I'm based at ATL and I live in ATL and the company is changing my base to SEA, I would want the company to assist me in finding housing and if I have kids, assist me in finding schools.

    1. Some excellent points. But... the pilots will never go 48 hours ahead of time because they would never be home. And, the real problem is being on call for 24 hours. Say a pilot is rested for that first flight of the day at 7. But that call doesn't come. By the time they are ready for bed, they call them at 7 pm at night. Legal. But how could they be rested for both time frames? Providing positive space to work for commuters would help a great deal. It's exhausting trying to find your way to work.
      Unlike many businesses, the airlines do not help with selling the house, or finding schools...etc. At NWA we had "paid" move, where they physically moved our belongings... but that did fix the uprooting of families.
      There are no guarantees on this job for sure.
      Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. Last week, I started off with a 13h30 duty day. In our airline, if we fly more than 12 hours we get some financial compensations and more rest time. A lot of troubles for the rostering office as our rest times are often kept to minimum. Most Captains round up the figures. In the end, I was officially on duty for 11h50 only.

    One day is alright, but a full week like this gets really tiring. I can definitely spot the mistakes I make due to fatigue. Simple and deadly ones like setting the wrong cleared altitude on the MCP even though we read it back correctly to ATC. That's one of the reason we have two pairs of eyes and hears in our aircraft.

    I am not sure what the rule is in our airline (nothing official at least, I checked all our operating manuals and booklets), but I don't feel as safe as I should be when I have 200 people's lives at the back relying on two pilots, one who's sleeping and the other (me) low experienced and exhausted from a full long-trips week.

    Cruise is calm and relaxed ... until something happens.
    If I recall well, in the past 4 weeks we have had one medical emergency, pressurisation auto fail (on the ground, thanks God), pack trip off in flight, a violent passenger smoking in the toilets and drunk, we had to get him restrained and later on arrested, a lot of weather-related events and re-planning, etc ...

    Some people can go from light sleep to full mental capacity and awereness in just a few seconds. I know I can't, and for this reason I don't sleep in flight and I will do my best to never be tempted to ever fall asleep.

    Oh and .. I commute. When I'm on the late shift, my last day usually finishes around 11pm-12am. Sometimes later. If I want to go back home (I always do as I can't afford the accomodation on my days off), I have to take the 6am flight (that's a 3 hour sleep), then wait 5 hours in the 1st airport, take a second flight, wait another 2h30, take a third flight, arrive 100 miles from home, take a train, a bus and finally home by 10pm (if there is no delay). Same goes for travelling from home to base. I mostly have three days off in a row, two of which are spent commuting.

    I'm one of the many having to cope with deep fatigue. And commuting is the only option I can afford, financially.

    That said, I love my job.
    I just wish I spent less time commuting, and less time dreaming of a good night sleep when I'm flying.

    How many hours do you fly a year Karlene?
    I have over 850 hours scheduled within the next 12 months, not including the general aviation flying. I wonder what it's like in the US.

    Thanks for the great post Karlene, it's a very good thing to raise public awareness on this matter.
    Have a good week-end.

    1. Sorry for my late reply. All I can say is WOW they are working you hard. When they offer more money, it's hard not to say no too. Even if you could. Your schedule is exhausting, and commuting on top of it adds to that. Then how do you have a personal life.

      I hear you on the errors made. We've all been there. Fatigue is a killer. I have just the opposite problem on the crazy schedule. Since my new position, and sitting reserve, I rarely ever fly.(as much as I want to) I'm continually going in for bounces every three months.

      The problem with this scenario is in the days that I ran schedules like yours...procedures were so ingrained that it was second nature.

      When you fly a highly automated plane, and don't fly enough to allow procedures to sink in and become second nature... you need every brain cell possible. Back to the fatigue factor. Early departure, first break, by the time I'm landing I've been up for a very long time.

      Take care of yourself! And thanks for your comment. More to come next Thursday.

  9. Pilots need to stand together and learn to say 'NO'.

    As long as there are pilots out there who will put up with the poor pay, poor work conditions and crappy schedules, airlines will squeeze the most out of them in order to save a few bucks.

    Government legislation is one answer, but a strong pilots association who helps pressure both the airlines (big and small) and government to make the changes is far more important IMHO.

    This is an issue on both sides of the border. How do North American regulations stack up with regulations around the world regarding rest?

    Just my two cents,
    YYC Dispatcher

    1. Yes... we do need to unite and stand up.

      But... funny story. I was a new hire at NWA. I was flying with two strong union reps. We were in a discussion about "honoring" the contract without flexibility. They said that nobody was to give at all during this time.

      I said, "Yeah, but the problem with pilots is they always do what works best for them, despite the rest of the crew."

      So we arrived in the hotel on the other side of the country and scheduling called and wanted us to Deadhead back. We hadn't even unpacked. So... we all packed and went back to the airport. I said to these union pilots, "Are we legal to go now?"

      They said, "Uh...well, we're close. Withing 10 minutes..."

      Both of those guys were going on vacation, and by leaving early gave them an extra day off. Me... then sent me on to L.A. I was on probation... the contract didn't aply to me.

      I said, "I rest my case."

      So that is the sad truth. There will always be someone who will do what's good for them.

      That's a great question about the rest of the world. I'll have to check on that.

      Thanks for a great comment.

  10. I've got a comment for Karlene about being flexible and being helpful.

    I've been trying to buy "Flight for Control" for a week and I filled out the order details incorrectly. OK, it was an international shipment and my PayPal account was also in a different country but - no excuses - I screwed up!

    Well, I've found Karlene to be extremely helpful, flexible and rapidly responsive in helping me to sort things out.

    Best "Customer Support" I've ever had from anyone, anywhere. Thank you Karlene!

    1. lol. Oh Dr. Bob, Thank you so much. I may be fatigued, but there is never a moment that I can always work toward giving my best. Thank you so much too!


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