“Severe and overall exhaustion has become a number-one security threat to Southwest Airlines,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association or SWAPA told airline executives in a letter this week.
According to the Traffic Safety Administration, passenger numbers for this month will be 90% in 2019, but major US passenger airlines will have about 3,000 fewer employees than during that period, according to traffic statistics. Thousands of pilots retired during the epidemic – voluntarily or under the age of 65 – 2,000 pilots have reached compulsory retirement age this year, according to research by the Regional Aviation Association. Compulsory pension numbers are expected to increase over the next 6 years.
Southwest executives have identified employees as one of their top priorities this year and have set a goal of hiring 8,000 new employees. Forty percent of them will be flight crew.
More hiring alone will not solve the problems of fatigue, says SWAPA President Casey Murray.
“We have a lot to do with planning our many delays and problems and connecting the pilots with the planes,” Murray told CNN in an interview. “These are inefficient planning processes that affect when we work in a highly dynamic environment.”
The number of pilots who announced they were unable to work due to fatigue last fall, including a 600% spike in October, reached “another dazzling 330% increase” last month in a letter to executives. “April is already setting records for fatigue,” SWAPA wrote.
Federal rules set basic limits for pilots’ working hours and require rest periods. Limitations for major U.S. airlines include 30 hours of flight time each week and a minimum of 9 hours of rest between shifts.
But pilots say the pressures of work and the changes caused by storms can wear them down before they hit those criteria.
Southwest Airlines has seen a surge in fatigue reports filed last month – 35 reports for every 10,000 work hours, compared to 10 reports for the same scale in March 2019. Spokeswoman Brandi King said the numbers show an effective system.
“This increase is expected because it is common to experience high fatigue calls during irregular operations and in March, industrial weather and aerial delays were encountered, which caused disruptions across the network,” King wrote in a statement to CNN. “The March increase in pilot fatigue calls is the result of the system working as designed, allowing them to determine if they are too tired to fly.”
Delta Air Lines pilots are holding a series of demonstrations at airports this month to address their fatigue concerns.
“Our pilots are tired and exhausted,” Evan Bach, captain of Delta and an official of the Airline Pilots Association or ALPA, told CNN affiliate KSL at the Salt Lake City airport protest. He said pilots work “long days with short nights at home”.
Jason Ambrose, chairman of the Delta Group at ALPA, said pilots are responsible for “safety as a last resort” in aviation, but “we are being pushed to our limits as Delta tries to fly back and add revenue.”
In a message to Delta members ALPA last month, Epidemic wrote that “Delta offered many opportunities to rebuild its broken pilot staffing problem.” Now that air travel is on the rise again, unresolved issues are becoming more apparent: the number of pilots to cover a problem caused by weather, maintenance or a sick colleague is significantly lower.
“Delta Flight Operations will continue to operate on the red line,” the union note said. “So, if you’ve felt like you’re working too hard and seeing less control over your schedule – you’re right; you say.”
Delta told CNN that its planning pilot follows federal rules for work and leisure.
“We are constantly evaluating our employee models and planning ahead so that they can recover quickly when unforeseen circumstances arise, and the regression of the delta population is incomparable in that respect,” spokesman Morgan Durant said. “All of our people, including our pilots, are working hard to recover our aircraft and deliver it to our customers when we recover from the outbreak. We are proud and grateful for their efforts.”
Last year, pilots from all carriers reported 60 faults or other incidents involving fatigue to the Federal Aviation Safety Reporting System. Reports are posted anonymously on the federal website without identifying names or airlines.
Some pilots wrote that they were tired after handling training responsibilities. Others said the airline managers had asked them to handle more extra flights as there were fewer employees.
“We both yawned in the middle of the 6+ hour flight and rubbed our eyes … I could not continue physically,” one captain wrote in November, despite “perfect, average sleep the night before”.
“But ‘we’ are pressing – aren’t we?” The pilot continued. “Our threats are three times greater than in the pre – Govt environment.
– CNN’s Pete Muntean and Raja Razek contributed to this report