Air travel demand prompts pilot union presidents to issue fatigue warning

Travel demand in Australia has risen unexpectedly fast, putting pressure on a workforce decimated by the pandemic. Photo / Unsplash

As demand for travel takes off in Australia, Qantas Airways’ pilot’s union has raised concerns about the risk to flight safety.

The unexpectedly fast return of international travel may seem like a good thing but not everyone is celebrating.

In Australia, passenger demand is already exceeding 2019 levels, prompting airlines and airports to order new plans and propose new regulations to help meet it.

However, Australian and International Pilots Association president Anthony Lucas claims these ‘solutions’ will stretch a fragile and understaffed industry.

New proposed tailwind threshold

One such proposal from Airservices Australia and Brisbane Airport would allow plans to land with stronger tailwinds so they can run more air traffic.

By increasing the tailwind threshold at Brisbane Airport from 5 knots to 7, more plans could depart or arrive ocean-side rather than over the suburbs.

A proposal to increase the threshold to 10 knots was rejected by regulators in 2021.

However, Lucas told the Sydney Morning Herald this proposal would not just violate international protocols but increase the chance of mistakes from pilots.

The Qantas A330 captain, who has worked for the airline since 1995, said higher tailwinds often increase the landing speed and give pilots less time to manage potential issues.

“Our major concern is it decreases our safety margins,” Lucas said. “If something else happens, I’m running rapidly out of options.”

The proposal could set a precedent that influences larger international airports like Sydney.

According to a document produced by the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAA), “tailwind take-offs and landings should be avoided unless it can be established with absolute certainty that there is sufficient distance available to do so”.

When asked about regulations relating to tailwind limits in New Zealand, CAA said aircrafts “will always be operated to the most stringent requirement so that safety is not compromised.”

The cost of narrow-body long-haul jets

This isn’t the only plan Lucas is concerned about. The president said Qantas’ new long-range Airbus SE A321XLR jets also posed a risk for crew due to a lack of proper rest areas.

Qantas ordered 40 of the narrowbody jets this month, which are due to arrive in 2024.

Back in 2020, aviation journalist Justin Hayward criticized the aircraft, which can operate long-haul flights to Asia, but has no designated space for crew to rest.

“It is likely (but not guaranteed) that airlines will leave some seats free on longer flights to allow for crew rest,” Hayward wrote.

“But a row of seats at the back of the economy section is a far cry from the separate crew rest cabins and beds seen on many long-haul aircraft.”

A lack of good sleep isn’t just irritating, Lucas said, but dangerous.

“Your decision-making is slower, your reaction times are slower, you’re more likely to get a poor landing,” he said.

Captain Andrew Ridling, president of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association, agreed.

“Fatigue can be as dangerous as drug and alcohol misuse and can lead to errors with potentially fatal consequences,” said Captain Ridling, who also works as a pilot for Air New Zealand.

“They’re pushing a lot of boats out at the moment,” he said of Airbus and their narrowbody jets, which have been strongly questioned by the pilot community.

Andrew Ridling, President of the NZ Air Line Pilots Association said fatigue can lead to errors with potentially fatal consequences.  Photo / New Zealand Herald
Andrew Ridling, President of the NZ Air Line Pilots Association said fatigue can lead to errors with potentially fatal consequences. Photo / New Zealand Herald

Despite making an aircraft that can carry more people, further, Captain Ridling said there will always be a limit to how long captains can, and should, fly.

“You can stretch an airplane forever but you’re still restricted by flight of duty limitations,” he said.

“I don’t see any major airlines purchasing airplanes that go that far because they can’t fly that far, their crew can’t do it,” he said.

New start-up airlines may claim their crew can fly 12 hours on a narrow-body long-haul jet, he said, but it isn’t without a cost to safety.

“That’s where you need strong regulators and strong people who are prepared to stand up and say ‘that’s not right’.”

Qantas, along with American Airlines, Air Canada and several budget airlines like Frontier, JetBlue, VietJet and Wizz Air are waiting on orders for A321XLR jets.

In a statement, Qantas said they would ensure protocols were in place to protect crew and support safe operation.

Air New Zealand currently have 20 A320neo and A321neo aircrafts in their operating fleet. Another 7 have been ordered without any public expression of interest in purchasing the A321XLR model.

The state of fatigue in New Zealand

As a passenger, it can be easy to get angry at the long queues, canceled flights or delayed journeys but behind the chaos we see in airports like LAX and Gatwick is a decimated workforce struggling to keep up.

Captain Ridling said pilots need better provisions for fatigue before international travel picks up in July.  Photo / Unsplash
Captain Ridling said pilots need better provisions for fatigue before international travel picks up in July. Photo / Unsplash

Just two months away from New Zealand’s international border opening and the end of pre-departure requirements, Captain Ridling said pilots need better protections against fatigue.

“There are a lot of people working very hard and fatigue sneaks up very quickly on people,” he said.

Part of the solution, according to the pilot, is making fatigue management plans mandatory in the new Civil Aviation Bill.

Since fatigue can have similar consequences on human performance as the consumption of alcohol or drugs, NZALPA proposed it be regulated with the same stringency.

“It seems appropriate that the CA Act also include a provision that would require operators to have an approved fatigue management plan,” NZALPA wrote in a 2019 submission for the new Civil Aviation Bill.

At an airline level, Air New Zealand Chief People Officer Nikki Dines said they have worked closely with unions to ensure fatigue-related processes and rest requirements suit the new travel environment.

Part of this is resisting any future spikes in travel demand and taking things slow.

“Restarting the airline is a little more complex than shutting it down so we are ramping up carefully to ensure that we have sufficient resource across the business,” Dines said. The airline has rehired more than 2000 Air New Zealand employees since January 2021.

Another tactic is providing support in the form of training and programs for crew and pilots to help maintain wellbeing.

Consequences of pilot and crew fatigue

Talk of risk management tools, aviation acts and pilot provisions can easily sail over one’s head but at the end of the day, Captain Ridling said it’s a discussion about people’s safety.

“In New Zealand, we are very lucky because our wide-body long haul pilots are very experienced and they understand that safety has to come first.”

Captain Ridling admits this means plans won’t be up and flying as quickly as passengers would like, but in the long run, it’s better for everyone.

“As a captain flying internationally my first port of call is the safety of my passengers so that needs to be front of mind before anything else.”

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