Fatigue – A Societal Issue; not just Aviation

Radio National’s excellent Background Briefing program had a story recently called Fatigue Factor. Although it commences on an aviation related theme – quoting particularly the now infamous Jetstar memo to pilots telling “toughen up princesses – you’re not fatigued; just tired” – the program rolls on through a number industries (Trains/Trucks) – and non-industries such as working or just driving your car fatigued/tired.

Funnily enough they didn’t go into my favorite 12-hour-on 12-hour-off industry – Medicine. The incredibly long duties undertaken in the medical industry as a matter of routine and the associated number of fatigue related incidents – for which there are some good statistics to quantify – has always astounded me, only exacerbated by the fact that they’re considered so routine, so normal, so acceptable. I recently spent some hours in an ICU and the level of care provided on a continuous basis to critical patients, who really do require minute by minute observation of symptoms and appropriate response only amazed me more when I realised that these carers were working 12 hour shifts. It looked to me like flying a non-precision approach in crappy weather to a poorly lit runway at night in gusty crosswinds – for hours on end.

The program makes some interesting points about our society at large and the role it has played in seducing all of us into accepting as standard the kind of workload levels that once would have been considered exceptional. The point is well made that as a working society we spent the 1990’s trading a century of hard won work limits against increased productivity – essentially increased working hours for increased pay. While there were short term gains there, perhaps in the long run this truly was a false economy – and only now are we reaping what was sowed.

After almost 40 years in aviation my father made the observation a while ago that the the only real pay rise in aviation is when you get to work less hard for the money you’re already getting. However insightful that comment may have been – there is no working less hard for anything in de-regulated aviation, anymore.

With Airlines pushing past the previous gold standard 900 hours a year limit and pushing flights further and further past the 10/12/14/16 hour mark through the use of augmented crew, combining east/west long haul flights with relatively care free abandon – the issue of fatigue is just not going to go away.

In decades gone past the flight and duty time limits published by regulatory authorities were considered just that – limitations. Singe de-regulation and the increased competition that comes with it such limits have instead become goal posts to both aim for and shift, and the difference between the absolute limit on monthly duty and flight hours and what a pilot is actually rostered to is considered a measure of inefficiency.

It was amusing to hear representatives of the trucking industry claiming that they needed reform to be more like Aviation where “you just wouldn’t get a pilot getting on an aircraft tired”; followed immediately by a similar representative of a Pilot union claiming just the same reform was needed in aviation so we could be more like the trucking industry.

Meanwhile the limits themselves are being worn at by the many airlines and re-drawn by the regulatory authorities. 900 hours a year has become 1000 hours for many airlines and flights getting longer and longer with less qualified (lower paid) crew. In most cases the enabler of this is the Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) – an “industry” driven concept that seeks to address the nebulous nature of fatigue determination with some real science and incorporate this into pilot and (at some point) cabin crew rostering practices. While there’s some thought and procedure and even a smattering of real science that goes into an FRMS; ostensibly the validation of such a system is in it’s response to feedback from the users of the system – the crew – on the fatiguing result of the duties and combination of duties being allowed by the FRMS. If you have no feedback – you have no fatigue, which can be a problem an industry with historically low levels of industrial protection. Conversely if you have feedback and no response – it’s not an FRMS, it’s just another goal post shifting exercise to achieve maximum productivity and reduce cost.

In my previous airline I was routinely operating up to 17 hours with four pilots. That was fatiguing enough, but I could always be confident of having a decent opportunity to rest prior to the most critical time of the flight – approach and landing. Now while I’m operating shorter sectors (12-15 hours) I’m doing so with a crew complement that places real restrictions on the amount of meaningful rest that can be achieved by the operating crew when it’s important – just prior to that approach and landing.

Any of those non-aviation sector readers who wonder about pilot inflight rest can read here for a slightly jaundiced, but informed viewpoint. Any understanding of Jet Lag is incomplete however without an appreciation of carrying from one duty to the next – explained here.

Fifteen years ago I was operating 14+ hours flights based in Hong Kong to London and Los Angeles. The inherently fatiguing nature of these flights was an axiomatic assumption test colloquially; not by science. I was rostered with 24 hours off between one of these flights any anything else; 3 days between any two of them; 5 days off between any two that came on from one direction and departed in the same direction (East to West and vice versa). Now the rest can be as little as 12-14 hours between one of these duties and another; between coming in from the US and heading out to the Middle East is irregularly 2 days off for pilots; and regularly 2 days off for cabin crew, who are worked significantly more than the pilots they fly with.

It seems like this issue is coming to a head. Between Air Traffic Controllers in the US sleeping through aircraft arrivals at Airport Control Towers in the middle of the night and the Senate inquiry focusing on fatigue in Jetstar, it would seem perhaps a review of this area – from a regulatory point of view – might be on the cards, across all industries and Society at large. If such a review results in the restriction of duty limits it will certainly require some mental agility for those in power and authority (different groups) who are so used to looking at ways of relaxing them.

Fatigue Factor is an interesting commentary on society at large – not just aviation – and the direction we seem to be heading in our working lives. We really do seem to have reversed “Work to Live” into “Live to Work” and the end doesn’t seem to be in sight.