Fatigue is starting to put safety at risk, pilots say

Originally Published: 16 APR 22 14:39 ET
Updated: 18 APR 22 07:20 ET

    (CNN) -- Pilots at Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines say pilot exhaustion is on the rise, and they're pressing the airlines treat fatigue and the mistakes that result as a safety risk.

"Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines' number-one safety threat," the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, told airline executives in a letter this week.

The causes, the pilots say, include cancellation chaos caused by severe weather, and climbing demand for air travel testing the mettle of still-recovering airlines.

Passenger numbers are about 90% of 2019 levels this month, according to Transportation Security Administration data, but major US passenger airlines are about 3,000 employees short from that time period, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. Thousands of pilots retired -- either by choice or aging out at 65 -- during the pandemic, and research presented by the Regional Airline Association says 2,000 pilots reach mandatory retirement age this year. Mandatory retirement numbers are expected to grow over the next 6 years.

Southwest executives identified staffing as one of their key priorities this year, setting a goal of hiring 8,000 new employees. Forty percent of those will be flight crews.

More hiring alone will not solve the fatigue issues, SWAPA president Casey Murray says.

"A lot of our delays and issues that we're having have to do more with scheduling and connecting pilots with airplanes," Murray told CNN in an interview. "It is inefficient scheduling processes that are affecting when we work in a very dynamic environment."

The union wrote in the letter to executives that the number of pilots who reported being unable to work because of fatigue skyrocketed last fall, including a 600% spike in October, and hit "another staggering 330% increase" last month. "April is already setting fatigue records," SWAPA wrote.

Federal rules set baseline limits on hours pilots may work and require rest periods. The limits for major US airlines include 30 hours of flying time each week and at a minimum 9 hours of rest between shifts.

But pilots report the stresses of the job and changes because of storms can leave them worn out before hitting those benchmarks.

Southwest Airlines acknowledged a climb in fatigue reports filed last month -- 35 reports for every 10,000 duty periods, compared to 10 reports for the same metric in March 2019. Spokeswoman Brandy King said the numbers show an effective system.

"The increase is expected, as it's common to experience an elevated level of fatigue calls during irregular operations and in March, the industry faced weather and airspace delays that resulted in disruptions across the network," King wrote in a statement to CNN. "The March increase in Pilot fatigue calls is a result of the system working as designed, allowing Crew to determine if they are too fatigued to fly."

Delta Air Lines pilots are holding a series of demonstrations at airports this month drawing attention to their fatigue concerns.

"Our pilots are tired and fatigued," Evan Baach, a captain at Delta and official with Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, told CNN affiliate KSL at a Salt Lake City airport protest. He said pilots are working "longer days with shorter nights at home."

Jason Ambrosi, chairman of the Delta group at ALPA, said that pilots are responsible as "the last line of defense" in aviation safety but "too often we are being pushed to our limits as Delta tries to add back flying and capture revenue."

ALPA wrote in a message to Delta members last month that the pandemic presented "several opportunities for Delta to re-set its broken pilot staffing issue." As air travel rebounds now, the union wrote, unresolved problems are becoming more apparent: The number of pilots available to step in and cover for an issue caused by weather, maintenance, or a sick colleague is significantly smaller.

"Delta Flight Operations continues to run the operation at red line," the union note reads. "So, if it feels like you are working more and seeing less control over your schedule -- you are right; you are."

Delta told CNN that its scheduling follows federal rules for pilot work and rest hours.

"We continuously evaluate our staffing models and plan ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise, and the resilience of the Delta people is unmatched in that regard," spokesman Morgan Durrant said. "All of our people, including our pilots, are working hard to restore our airline and deliver for our customers as we emerge from the pandemic. We are grateful for and proud of their efforts."

Last year, pilots from all carriers filed about 60 reports of mistakes or other incidents involving fatigue to the federal Aviation Safety Reporting System. The reports are posted to a federal website anonymously, without identifying names or airlines.

Some pilots wrote they were tired after handling training responsibilities. Others said airline managers asked them to handle too many extra flights because of short staffing.

"Both of us were yawning and eye rubbing halfway through our 6+ hour flight... I was physically unable to keep up," one captain wrote in November, despite having "appropriate, average sleep the night before."

"But 'we' press on - don't we?" the pilot continued. "Our threats are threefold of the pre-Covid environment. We've been facing delays, shortages, planning and staffing issues that are NOT being taken into account in building schedules. Why? Because we pilots are counted upon to make it work."

-- CNN's Pete Muntean and Raja Razek contributed to this report

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