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The Human Factor: Pilot Fatigue

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Statement of the Problem

One of the key concerns in the airline industry is ensuring the highest safety standards for all the passengers and crew members. However, it is impossible to reach this objective without comprehending the essence of pilot fatigue and developing effective measures for their decrease. Pilot fatigue prevents professionals from demonstrating high-quality performance and following all key regulations. In general, fatigue includes a variety of physiological states that affect negatively pilots’ productivity, reactions, and decision-making skills. The communications and interactions with other crew members may also be disturbed, and it may prevent the crew from organizing the correct and well-coordinated response system.

There are numerous causes contributing to fatigue and its adverse effects. The most common causes include the lack of sleep, long duty periods, and an unstable work schedule (Gander et al, 2015). All these causes are highly widespread among different countries and airline companies. The reason is that the professional environment of aviation specialists is challenging and associated with substantial physiological and psychological pressure. In the majority of real-life cases associated with fatigue, several causes leading to its development, intensifying the ultimate negative impact observed. Since any extraordinary situations require timely and rational decisions, the lower pilot’s performance contributes to the disproportional increase of the risks (Vejvoda et al, 2014). Correspondingly, the successful minimization of the problem can lead to considerable positive effects on a global scale.

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The present paper examines the significance of the problem with the corresponding negative effects of different types. Moreover, it analyzes several recent accidents that occurred due to the pilot’s fatigue. The evaluation of the available research in this field allows formulating the relevant implications and recommendations. In general, the scope of the problem is substantial. Moreover, there are urgent and effective measures needed for designing complex response and prevention systems.

Significance of the Problem

The problems related to pilot fatigue are highly significant for several reasons. Firstly, the recent statistics indicate that around 20 percent of accidents during the last 10 years is associated with the direct or indirect impact of fatigue (NTSB, 2016). In particular, it is often considered as being either the probable cause of an accident or a contributing factor. Secondly, there are numerous negative effects of fatigue, including forgetfulness, ineffective decision-making, and low overall performance. The combination of the above negative factors results in the non-optimal pilots’ decisions in the most critical moments and situations (Vejvoda et al, 2014). Thus, it creates significant health risks for passengers and crew members.

Thirdly, the lack of timely and effective coordination with other crew members prevents the pilots from assessing all the existing risks and making rational decisions within a limited time. Thus, the ultimate responses appear to be inadequate and insufficient as compared to the scope and structure of the existing challenges. Moreover, it leads to a higher concentration of risks for all the individuals involved (Gander et al, 2013). Thus, fatigue often does not lead to accidents directly but increases the likelihood of sub-optimal decisions and activates the impact of other potentially negative factors.

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Moreover, fatigue impacts pilots’ self-assessment regarding their actual fatigue level. Thus, they can underestimate their physiological problems and do not comprehend the need for increasing one’s alertness or sensitivity to the potential challenges. In general, fatigue distorts the optimal system of pilots’ fulfilling their professional duties. Thus, the scope of the problem requires the integrated efforts of various institutions and organizations in this field. It is necessary to address both the key objective and subjective factors contributing to fatigue and concentrating on the proper preventive measures.

Review of Relevant Research

As the seriousness of the problem tends to rise, there are a large number of relevant research studies regarding the effects of fatigue and the potential response strategies. However, it is reasonable to examine briefly several recent accidents associated with the impact of pilot fatigue. Their analysis will enable investigating different ways of its influence and the ultimately tragic consequences.

One of such cases is the Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident occurred on February, 12, 2009. The crash resulted in 50 fatalities, including all the passengers and crew members as well as one person from the Clarence Center, New York. Moreover, other four individuals from the Center received non-fatal injuries. Fatigue was the main factor contributing to the pilot’s incorrect assessment of the situation and subsequent non-optimal decisions. In particular, the incorrect response to the stall warnings was revealed during the ex-post evaluation of the accident (NTSB, 2009). In addition, the crew had not followed the basic sterile cockpit procedures; there was also insufficient airspeed monitoring. Thus, the improper speed selected contributed to the further problems in this field.

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In general, fatigue prevented the pilot from the effective management of the flight and addressing the key challenges in a timely and effective manner. Although the flight was organized under the icing conditions, the crew possessed the necessary qualification and resources to meet all such challenges. Actually, fatigue led to the crew’s non-fulfilling of several important safety requirements with the corresponding rapid concentration of the related risks.

Another fatigue-associated accident is the First Air Flight 6560 crash that occurred on August 20, 2011. It resulted in twelve fatalities and three non-fatal injuries (‘I don’t like this’: Argument in the cockpit one of various reasons for 2011 Arctic plane crash: Safety board, 2011). Fatigue was one of the key factors contributing to the crew’s missing the runway centerline signal. When the substantial disagreements between the captain and the first pilot emerged, they were unable to reach the mutual agreement. The first pilot identified the problem at earlier stages but was unable to explain adequately his concerns to the captain. He appealed to the problems with heading and suggested that it was reasonable to abort landing. However, the captain ignored his claims without any consideration and made incorrect decisions based on his personal assessment of the situation.

Thus, several effects of fatigue are present in the analyzed case. Firstly, the pilot had not recognized the seriousness of the potential threats in advance. Thus, he had not adjusted his plans although he had had the necessary amount of time. Secondly, they had not recognized being under the influence of fatigue; thus, he had not paid the proper attention to the claims of the first officer. Thirdly, the ineffective communication between the captain and the first pilot occurred. On the one hand, the first pilot was unpersuasive and inefficient in explaining his concerns. If he had comprehended the impact of fatigue to the captain, he could have been more persuasive and consistent in advocating his position. On the other hand, the captain’s risk perception was disturbed due to the growing fatigue. Thus, the absence of timely response measures led to the ultimate crash.

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One more case demonstrating the negative impact of fatigue refers to the UPS Airlines Flight 1354 accident that occurred on August 14, 2013. The crash resulted in two fatalities of the crew members. Fatigue was the main factor impacting the pilot’s control over the flight process. He lost the proper control and did not consult the flight management computer for obtaining additional information regarding the key risks and threats (NTSB, 2013). It could have provided the pilot with higher opportunities for assessing the situation objectively and making the well-grounded decision.

Moreover, the communication problems emerged in this case when the captain was unable to communicate his plans to the first pilot when it had become clear that they had not captured the vertical profile. The first officer also violated the instructions since he did not make the minimally required number of callouts (NTSB, 2013). Thus, they were unable to provide the well-coordinated response and prevent the ultimate crash.

The close investigation of this case had revealed that fatigue impacted both the captain and the first officer. The former was affected by the performance deficiencies during training while the latter experienced insufficient sleep due to ineffective time management. Consequently, both the captain and the first officer made serious errors and violated the instructions. In addition, they had not reached a mutual agreement regarding the proper response in the analyzed situation. The lack of coordination and timely reactions caused by fatigue resulted in tragic consequences.

Thus, the examination of the above cases reveals several common aspects associated with fatigue that may result in crashes and accidents. The first one is the incorrect assessment of the emerging risks. In particular, the captain either fails to make a timely assessment or adopts the irrational and illogical mode of behavior. The second one is the set of interrelated requirements’ violations. Experiencing the impact of fatigue, the captain and other crew members tend to become less effective in following all the existing requirements in detail. Correspondingly, it leads to a further concentration of risks. The third one is the substantial communication problems between the captain and the first officer (NTSB, 2013). Due to the fact that they assess the situation differently, they cannot communicate their suggestions or concerns to each other in a timely and effective manner.

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There is extensive research regarding the key factors and threats associated with pilot fatigue. Modern experts evaluate this problem from several perspectives. Vejvoda et al (2014) demonstrate that late-finishing flights have the highest fatigue risks. The reason is that the circadian system diminishes its alertness due to the long times awake. Gander et al (2013) indicate the substantial increase of fatigue-related risks for ultra-long-range (ULR) trips. Moreover, the serious concentration of risks is observed even in the long-range (LR) trips. It means that considering the pilots’ physiological systems, at some point fatigue tends to rise disproportionally. Therefore, there is an objective need for reconsidering the existing practices and preventing the over-concentration of fatigue risks through the corresponding measures.

Gander et al (2015) provide the empirical information that indicates the close correlation between the sleep/wake history and the circadian phase. These findings indicate the potential reduction of the mean response time. However, the substantial variations among the pilots exist regarding the severity of the determined correlation and its potential impact on their performance. For this reason, the researchers utilize the subjective ratings for assessing the intensity of the potential risks for each particular pilot. Although such a method requires additional financial and time resources, it allows achieving satisfactory reliability (Gander et al, 2015). It may outline the optimal period for interventions for a specific pilot.

Since the scope of the problem and its potentially negative outcomes are comprehended, it is reasonable to analyze the specific measures taken by the airline companies and proposed by the researchers to normalize the situation in this field. Schofield (2015) specifies the actions taken by Cathay Pacific Airways for considering the key fatigue complaints of its pilots. The company’s top-management analyzes all the factors that contributed to fatigue and tries to adjust the company’s operations in order to ensure the maximum safety standards for the passengers and crews. Cathay Pacific Airways is also open to examining the pilots’ proposals regarding the ways of improving the company’s operations or norms in this regard. Due to the dynamic character of the modern airline industry, it is crucial to provide timely responses to the emerging challenges and difficulties.

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The researchers suggest that the major international regulations should be adjusted according to the recent findings in the sphere of fatigue-related risks. In particular, it is necessary to consider the duty start time as well as impose some limitations on the time of the final landing. Consequently, the fatigue risks can be reduced to an acceptable degree. The available statistical information enables determining the statistically significant results regarding the optimal start time and final landing (Gander et al, 2013). Thus, it is possible to utilize this information for providing additional safety guarantees for the international community.

Considering the fact that the longest flights are associated with the disproportionally higher fatigue risks, it is reasonable to introduce additional in-flight sleep for the pilots. The existing resources and organization of flights enable addressing this issue within the minimum period of time. The first findings regarding this initiative demonstrate the possibility of reducing fatigue to the acceptable level and optimizing the entire risk structure. Moreover, higher coordination in relation to domestic and international scheduling is necessary. If the systematic concentration of fatigue risks is observed, it is crucial to adjust the schedule accordingly (Schofield, 2015). The current availability of technologies and corresponding international cooperation in this area allow integrating fatigue consideration into the global airline plans. Moreover, it is possible to address the health concerns of the particular pilots through creating a detailed database with evaluating the major health risks for each individual. It may enable preventing the occurrence of many extraordinary cases.

Summary and Conclusion

To summarize, the provided analysis indicates the growing risks and threats associated with fatigue. It has significant negative effects related to pilots’ physiological and psychological problems, diminishes their productive performance, and creates difficulties in making timely and effective decisions. The coordination with other crew members is also typically disturbed, and the crew tends to violate the basic norms and regulations. The evaluation of the recent accidents has indicated that fatigue may have both a direct and indirect impact on subsequent accidents.

In particular, many pilots cannot assess the structure and scope of existing risks. Therefore, they do not take the timely measures needed under such conditions. The number of other deviations from the instructions tends to rise radically, and it creates additional concerns in extraordinary situations. Moreover, the communication process between the captain and first officer is often disturbed since they assess the problem from different perspectives. Consequently, they cannot arrive at the mutual understanding of the observed challenges and provide the well-coordinated responses.

The existing research in this field outline several aspects related to fatigue risks. The hidden risks associated with late-finishing flights are revealed successfully in the recent study (Vejvoda et al, 2014). Thus, the existing regulations should be adjusted to these risks, and the schedule should be revised in those cases when it is possible. ULR trips also contribute to the disproportional concentration of risks as compared to the standard and LR trips (Gander et al, 2013). It is reasonable to introduce additional in-flight sleep opportunities for the pilots in order to reduce the level of fatigue. The available research indicates the substantial positive effects that may be achieved in this way. The specialized databases for assessing the health conditions and fatigue risks for the specific pilots may be established. The majority of experts believe that effective prevention measures are crucial for the substantial improvements in the analyzed field.

Recommendations for Future Research

Despite the existing achievements specified in the scope and application of the research, it is necessary to formulate several relevant recommendations that may contribute to further progress in the analyzed direction. First, future research should concentrate on developing precise quantitative models for determining fatigue risks from a quantitative perspective. The current focus on their general dynamics and correlations is insufficient to initiate effective and large-scale interventions. Therefore, the effective integration of quantitative and qualitative research methods is necessary for improving the situation in this field.

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Secondly, there is an objective need for integrating different response measures into the single anti-fatigue system. The available methods enable assessing the impact of various independent variables. Thus, it is possible to construct reliable models with a maximum degree of statistical significance. The accumulated empirical information may be helpful for adjusting them on a regular basis. Thirdly, the close fatigue control for each pilot is required for promoting the highest safety standards (Schofield, 2015). It is possible to utilize several health criteria in order to ensure the appropriate pilots’ health conditions. The adequate interventions should correspond to any identified deviations from the target levels. The researchers can determine the critical range of deviations that require urgent interventions.

Fourthly, the determined policies and interventions should be involved at the international level. In the existing globalized environment, any single country cannot achieve sustainable improvement for the entire airline industry. Therefore, the international organizations should facilitate the process of the close investigation of fatigue-relates risks. The developed recommendations should become obligatory for all the countries in order to reach the maximum possible results. Thus, the formulated recommendations may increase the effectiveness of anti-fatigue proposals and their implementation at the international level. Although it is impossible to eliminate the fatigue problem completely, it may be reduced to an acceptable degree. The flexible international mechanism will prevent the occurrence of negative tendencies in the future.

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