The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has recently revealed that a 325 seat Airbus A330 belonging to a UK based carrier was discovered to be flying on autopilot when both the pilot and co-pilot had fallen asleep.

The two pilots involved blamed fatigue, pointing out that because of the long shifts which they had been putting in over the peak holiday season, they had only managed to have 5 hours sleep during the preceding 36 hours. While an aeroplane is capable of cruising on autopilot, an air safety expert warned that the biggest risk arises when there is an emergency, or if a pilot wakes up and does something as a knee-jerk reaction while still suffering sleep inertia. To add to the concern, a recent survey of 500 commercial airline pilots by the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) revealed that of the 56% of pilots who admitted sleeping, 29% said that they had woken up to find the other pilot sleeping as well.

The European Commission had hoped to standardise the varying time limits for flying across member states, after the European Aviation Safety Agency recommended new EU rules on flight limitations for pilots and cabin crew. Amongst the recommendations were a reduction in the time pilots can be on duty if their shift involves night time flying from 11 hours and 45 minutes to 11 hours, with a 9 hour cap if duty time involves multiple take-offs and landings that occur at night.

The plan, which was also backed by the UK Government and CAA came in for much criticism from Pilot’s unions and safety campaigners. BALPA wants a night time duty limit of no more than ten hours and argues that the proposed rules would allow pilots to:

  • Fly on the longest-haul flights with only two crew rather than the three at present
  • Work up to seven early starts in a row rather than the current three allowed
  • Land an aircraft after being awake for 22 hours

BALPA believes that the proposals will see a watering down of current UK rules, and has pledged that it will continue working with its lawyers to explore legal avenues for challenge. Claims that in some circumstances – with standby and flying time combined – pilots could be awake for up to 22 hours were dismissed by the CAA which pointed out that “it is important to understand that this scenario will almost never happen.” The European Commission also said that pilots would have and “must use” sleep periods when on call away from the airport, which would limit the consecutive hours they could be awake to 18. The UK Government believes that the package of proposals contains a number of welcome provisions that will deliver a significant improvement in safety across the EU as a whole. The Government also believes that organisations representing pilots have focused on reviewing each specific limit, rather than concentrating on the overall effect of the proposals.

Plans suffered a setback on 30 September 2013, however, as MEPs on the European Parliament’s transport committee voted to block the new rules by 21 to 13. It is likely however that the proposals will be put to the vote in plenary session of the full European Parliament next week, and the Parliament must give its verdict by 25 October 2013. In the meantime however, as you next board a plane you may wish to console yourself with the following: figures suggest that the chance of being involved in a fatal air crash in America is one in 45 million. Put more simply, passengers in the US could fly every day for 123,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash. The chances of your pilot falling asleep though may be considerably smaller!