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'Pilot Fatigue' Is Plaguing the Airline Industry. Here's How That Impacts You.

News Airports + Flying
by Olivia Harden Apr 18, 2022

When you board a flight, the perks of free wifi and ample legroom are nice, but, truthfully, the most important thing is making it safely to your destination. On that front, the latest data from Southwest and Delta Air Lines may leave you concerned. Reports of pilot fatigue are on the rise, putting passengers at risk.

“Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines’ number-one safety threat,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association
(SWAPA) told airline executives, as reported in Business Insider.

Cancellations due to severe weather combined with increasing demand and staff shortages are wearing out pilots. Passenger numbers have reached 90 percent of what they were this time of year in 2019, and yet major passenger airlines in the United States are at a 3,000-employee deficit, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Pilots are leaving the industry voluntarily and due to forced retirements at 65. In response, Southwest Airlines promised to hire 8,000 more employees, but this doesn’t solve the problem of mass delays and other scheduling conflicts in the short term.

Pilots are required by law to take a minimum of nine hours of rest between shifts, and are capped at a 30-hour workweek. But the current state of the industry has placed more stress on pilots even before reaching their cap. Pilot fatigue reports have risen from 10 reports of fatigue for every 10,000 duty reports for March of 2019 to 35 out of every 10,000 duty reports for Southwest pilots. Union representatives at Delta say the company should’ve used the pandemic as an opportunity to fix procedures and staffing issues, but instead pilots are picking up extra shifts.

Pilots are “the last line of defense” in aviation safety according to Jason Ambrosi, chairman of the Delta group at Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the company’s union. But “too often we are being pushed to our limits as Delta tries to add back flying and capture revenue.”

The union wrote a letter to Delta members stating their concerns, which the company responded to. The company also concludes that they have followed federal guidelines regarding pilot shifts.

“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 told CNN. “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.”

Delta pilots have begun hosting demonstrations at various airports across the country this month to call attention to the “longer days and shorter nights” caused by staffing issues. Until the issue is addressed, you can count on pilot fatigue being just one more factor making it hard to find a flight that’s on-time, and for the right cost.

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