Pilots at Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines say pilot burnout is on the rise and they are pressuring airlines to treat fatigue and the resulting errors as a safety risk.
“Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines’ primary safety threat,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, told airline executives in a letter this week.
The causes, according to the pilots, include the chaos of cancellations caused by bad weather and the increase in demand for air travel testing the mettle of still-recovering airlines.
Passenger numbers are about 90% of 2019 levels this month, according to data from the Transportation Security Administration, but major U.S. passenger airlines are short of about 3,000 employees for this period, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Thousands of pilots have retired – either by choice or by aging at 65 – during the pandemic, and a study presented by the Regional Airline Association indicates that 2,000 pilots are reaching mandatory retirement age this year. The number of mandatory retirees is expected to increase over the next 6 years.
Southwest executives have identified staffing as one of their top priorities this year, setting a goal to hire 8,000 new employees. Forty percent of them will be flight crews.
More hiring alone will not solve fatigue issues, SWAPA President Casey Murray said.
“A lot of our delays and issues that we’re having are more about scheduling and connecting the pilots with the planes,” Murray told CNN in an interview. “It’s the inefficient planning processes that affect when we work in a very dynamic environment.”
The union wrote in the letter to leaders that the number of pilots who said they were unable to work due to fatigue soared last fall, including a 600% peak in October, and reached “a another staggering 330% increase” last month. “April is already setting fatigue records,” SWAPA wrote.
Federal rules set basic limits on the hours pilots can work and require rest periods. Limits for major US airlines include 30 hours of flight time per week and a minimum of 9 hours off between shifts.
But pilots report the stress of the job, and the changes from the storms can wear them out before they hit those benchmarks.
Southwest Airlines acknowledged an increase in fatigue reports filed last month – 35 reports for 10,000 duty periods, compared to 10 reports for the same metric in March 2019. Spokeswoman Brandy King said the numbers show a system efficient.
“The increase is expected as it is common to experience a high level of fatigue calls during irregular operations and in March the industry faced weather and airspace delays which resulted in network disruptions,” King wrote in a statement to CNN. “The March increase in pilot fatigue calls is the result of the system operating as intended, allowing the crew to determine if they are too fatigued to fly.”
Delta Air Lines pilots are holding a series of demonstrations at airports this month, drawing attention to their fatigue issues.
“Our pilots are weary and weary,” Evan Baach, Delta captain and head of the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, told CNN affiliate KSL during a protest at the Salt Lake City airport. . He said pilots were working “longer days with shorter nights at home”.
Jason Ambrosi, Delta Group president at ALPA, said pilots are responsible as the “last line of defence” in aviation safety, but “too often we are pushed to our limits as Delta tries to add flights and capture revenue”.
ALPA wrote in a message to Delta members last month that the pandemic presented “several opportunities for Delta to reset its stalled pilot staffing issue.” As air travel now resumes, the union writes, the unresolved issues are becoming increasingly apparent: the number of pilots available to step in and cover a problem caused by weather, maintenance or a sick colleague is drastically reduced. .
“Delta Flight Operations continues to conduct the redline operation,” read the union’s memo. “So if you feel like you’re working more and seeing less control over your schedule, you’re right, you are.”
Delta told CNN its schedule follows federal rules for pilot work and rest hours.
“We are constantly evaluating our staffing models and planning ahead so that we can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise, and the resilience of Delta residents is unmatched in this regard,” spokesperson Morgan Durrant said. . “All of our employees, including our pilots, are working hard to restore our airline and deliver to our customers as we emerge from the pandemic. We are grateful and proud of their efforts.”
Last year, pilots from all carriers filed about 60 reports of errors or other fatigue-related incidents to the federal aviation safety reporting system. The reports are posted on a federal website anonymously, without identifying names or airlines.
Some pilots wrote that they were tired after taking on the training responsibilities. Others said airline managers had asked them to handle too many extra flights due to staff shortages.
“We were both yawning and rubbing our eyes in the middle of our 6+ hour flight… I was physically unable to keep up,” one captain wrote in November, despite “a average and adequate sleep the night before”.
“But ‘we’ go on – do we?” continues the pilot. “Our threats are threefold compared to the pre-Covid environment. We have faced delays, shortages, scheduling and personnel issues that are NOT factored into construction schedules. Why? Because we riders rely on us to make it work.”
– CNN’s Pete Muntean and Raja Razek contributed to this report