When pilots go to work without enough sleep, it endangers their lives and hundreds of others who fly with them. In the first part of this series, we take a look at why pilots are sleep deprived.
There is a common thread that runs through many of the air disasters and near-mishaps that have occurred in Indian aviation.
In 2010, an Air India Express flight crashed while landing at Mangaluru's airport, killing 158 passengers and crew members. It remains India's deadliest air disaster. Investigations later revealed that the captain had failed to "appreciate the dangerous situation...partly due to fatigue and sleep inertia". In fact, the pilot was snoring for a large part of the flight.
In 2013, a fatigue-induced pilot's error nearly led to another disaster. An Air India flight from Abu Dhabi, with 81 passengers on board, continued its descent to Mumbai airport despite two jeeps blocking its way on the runway. Even as the ATC officials frantically asked the pilots to abort the landing and do a turn around, the plane continued descending. Fortunately, officials in the jeep noticed the coming aircraft and quickly moved away.
In its investigations later, industry regulator DGCA said the pilots had been fatigued, leading to a failure in communication with the ATC.
In 2019, too, the sector witnessed similar incidents. The DGCA pulled up airlines, including SpiceJet and Air India Express for several 'landing incidents' during the monsoon. The regulator asked the companies to stress on training and flight schedules of pilots to avoid fatigue.
Fatigue. That's the common thread that runs through these incidents. It leads to tired pilots, not alert enough to take right decisions, resulting in dangerous, life-threatening circumstances.
Here is the interesting part. The pilots themselves have been crying hoarse, about being tired and stressed.
In 2011, two Air India pilots resigned citing fatigue and stress. In his resignation letter, one of the pilots blamed "mindless rostering of pilots and financial penalties for reporting sick," for the exit.
In 2018, a senior pilot with IndiGo, cut short his stint at the airline. "I was almost living out of a suitcase. If I had continued, I would have died," says the former pilot.
Earlier in 2019, a 31-year-old pilot with a private airline died of heart attack. While the airline blamed it on his 'lifestyle', peers thought otherwise. "He had recently married. Wanted to spend time with his family, and despite being fatigued didn't want to report sick too, for fear of losing out of his bonus," says his colleague.
"The problem is acute," says lawyer Yeshwanth Shenoy, whose PIL led the Delhi High Court in 2018 to direct industry regulator DGCA to limit flying hours of pilots. "But, there is no solution in sight," he adds.
The body clock
The senior pilot quoted above talks about a schedule that involved flying three to five sectors a day with a daily flight duty time going beyond 10 hours. "We would fly more than 70 hours a month, despite not signing up for over-time," he says.
The increasing flying hours is the reason why many pilots complete their yearly quota of 1,000 hours much earlier, sometimes in 10 months.
Long hours and changing schedules often disrupt the body clock. A senior pilot talked about returning home early in the morning. While the airline - following regulations - may allow the pilot 15 hours of rest, "How do I tell my body to go to sleep at 5.30 in the morning," he asks.
Another pilot talks about getting up at 3 am in the morning to report to duty at 5.30 am. "While the duty hours starts ticking only at 5.30 when I reach the airport, the body is already awake from 3 am," he says.
Long days, doing over-time and sleeping less may sound like a norm for a corporate job. But, these become a dangerous cocktail when it comes to pilots who handle an increasingly sophisticated machine and are responsible for scores of lives.
The high incidence of fatigue has led to many pilots being put on the permanently medically unfit (PMU) and temporary medically unfit (TMU) lists.
If a crew member remains in the TMU list for more than 18 months, he or she is put on the PMU list. According to reports, the TMU category allows a maximum one week for acute conditions, and three weeks for long chronic illness at a time.
Sources in the industry said that IndiGo, the country's largest airline, had over 70 pilots in the TMU and PMU lists by July, the maximum ever. This puts burden on the active pilots and also cuts into the airline's pool of pilots.
The airline, like most of its peers, has a benevolent fund that takes care of the financial needs of the pilots on these two lists. Both the company and the active pilots contribute to the fund.
"Unfortunately, we are now facing a financial strain. With increasing number of unfit pilots, our contribution to the benevolent fund has also gone up," said a senior pilot.
For IndiGo, which had to cancels hundreds of flights earlier in 2019 because of shortage of pilots, the long PMU and TMU lists add to the challenge of running an operation that is furiously increasing its fleet.
The airline did not respond to questions.
Compounding the problem is the reluctance among pilots to report fatigue. "If you report fatigue, it becomes like a blot on your appraisal. And sometimes the annual bonus is also cut," says a pilot with a private airline.
Even then, say industry observers, more and more pilots are being put on the TMU and PMU lists, not just in IndiGo, but in other airlines too.
But, is it just the Indian pilots who are being felled by fatigue? How about their counterparts in other countries?
The next part in this series will check if pilots in other countries are able to handle fatigue.Get access to India's fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code "GETPRO". Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.