It is interesting to hear about Air India, with alleged concurrence of DGCA (since denied), ordering its pilots to continue flights beyond their mandated duty hours. This operational order, now being withdrawn, raises questions about arm twisting tactics of an organization already having had a tragic crash at Mangalore recently. Their Flight Safety department seems to have looked the other way, and probably neither Air India nor their pilots union have Human factors Specialists to advise them scientifically.
Interestingly Air India is hiding behind the fig leaf of not inconveniencing their passengers, with no concern whatsoever to the larger issue of Safety at all times. But what are the issues at stake that makes it paramount that the vital issue of aviation safety had been completely overlooked in this safety compromising order?
For the uninitiated, quoting a renowned Aviation Psychiatrist, who while empathizing with the problem of sleepy pilots in flight, said, “If you have never personally caught yourself dozing off whilst in control of a vehicle more powerful than a bicycle, you really don’t comprehend this problem. Certainly folks may have underlying medical conditions that make them more liable to get drowsy than Joe Average. Certainly medications, hypoglycemia and other physiological disruptions may be factors in an individual instance.“
How succinctly put! Pilots are not only faced with the problem of sleep, after being on the controls for a prolonged period of time (remember the snoring pilot of the ill-fated Air India IX 812). There are other physiological factors also kicking in due to the circadian rhythm, including ebbing performance in the early morning hours (remember the most dangerous time for drivers on road is between 0400 t0 0600 Hr, when the body’s performance is at its lowest ebb, and so are pilots susceptible to it), and the essential need for food and fluid replenishment or ablutions while in flight.
The are several variables in aviation, viz. time of the day, circadian rhythms, alertness states and the task pertaining to the assigned duty that may increase the susceptibility of the pilots to err in situation under discussion – prolonged hours on duty. This may be aggravated by altered sleep patterns, particularly in case of pilots flying across time zones, which in turn is known to induce cumulative fatigue and sleep debt. Therefore prolonged hours at controls translate into sleep deprivation, which is associated with physical and mental fatigue, resulting in performance decrement. Imagine a tired, sleepy pilot, at the fag end of his flight, requiring to pilot his aircraft safely – this indeed is an oxymoron of the Flight Duty Time Limitation (FDTL) meant for safety of flight by mandating the work-rest schedule for the pilots.
Such compromises in name of convenience are abhorrent acts by the airline operations. Here, the larger malaise seems to be a lack of insight, empathy and conscience on part of the concerned Operations department not just towards their colleagues in cockpit, but risking those very people, the passengers, who pay fare in the hope that they shall reach their destinations safe. Compromising safety must be repudiated by all concerned: the regulator, the crew and the passengers. And lack of sensitivity, besides the accountability, in such acts must be probed to fix the responsibility – is DGCA and Air India up to it?