EU researchers raise concerns over pilot fatigue

A new study released by the EU-funded FUTURE SKY SAFETY project has reported that half of airline pilots believe that fatigue is not taken seriously by airlines, raising questions about safety within the European aviation industry.

The study conducted by consortium members the London School of Economics (LSE) and Eurocontrol, and in collaboration with the European Cockpit Association, is the first large-scale survey of pilots’ perceptions of safety within the industry. Overall, European aviation remains an ultra-safe industry with an impressive safety record, with a low frequency of accidents and near-misses. As a result, ‘safety culture’, defined by the report as ‘safety-related norms, values, and practices shared by groups managing risk in an organisation’ has become a cornerstone of Europe’s effective safety management system.

Worrying results

However, the report, which saw the participation of 7 239 pilots (14 % of Europe’s total commercial pilot population) raises some important questions with regards to pilots’ perceptions of aviation safety. In particular, 51 % of pilots surveyed reporting that fatigue is not taken seriously by their airline and that 28 % of pilots felt that they had insufficient numbers of staff to carry out their work safely. Even more noteworthy, less than 20 % of the pilots surveyed felt that their airline cares about their personal wellbeing.

Overall though the results highlighted that perceptions of safety culture are generally positive amongst pilots. The vast majority did not feel that they have to take risks that made them feel uncomfortable about safety, and they indicated a high degree of confidence in their colleagues. Consequently, the results show that the biggest concern appears to be fatigue and understaffing and that many believe they are being pushed too far by their demanding schedules.

The survey also revealed significant differences in the pilots’ assessment of safety culture depending on different factors such as the type of airlines they work for or the type of contracts on which they operate. Pilots working on atypical contracts or for low cost and cargo airlines have more negative perceptions of safety culture than their colleagues working under more secure forms of employment and for network carrier airlines.

Recommendations for future action

Following thorough analysis of the survey results, the project researchers recommended three courses of action that should be pursued by the aviation industry in response to the findings. First, to identify the causes and potential solutions on the areas of safety culture within European aviation that were less positively perceived by pilots, such as fatigue and management’s commitment to safety). Secondly, to begin systematically measuring and exploring safety culture in commercial aviation companies as is done in other safety critical industries, such as oil and gas. Finally, the researchers urge the industry to consider opportunities for inter-organisational learning on safety culture (e.g. sharing best practice amongst organisations).

‘Pilots, airlines and regulators need to begin a dialogue to understand what these results mean for industry,’ commented co-author Dr Tom Reader. ‘This will help to address the concerns raised by pilots and help identify what could be changed to maintain the positive safety culture within the industry, whilst ensuring European aviation remains competitive.’

His colleague and fellow co-author, Dr Anam Parand also said: ‘Whilst our study doesn’t show any cause and effect between fatigue and accidents, the potential for fatigued pilots to impact on safety is definitely a concern and that should be addressed. There have been a few accidents where one of the primary causes was implicated to be that of fatigue.’

For more information, please see:
project website

last modification: 2016-12-14

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