Two British pilots, flying a commercial airliner packed with almost 350 passengers both fell asleep at the controls last month, leaving the Airbus A330 on autopilot for an unknown amount of time. The airline was operated by a British-based airline.
The sleepy pilots actually came clean to aviation authorities on their own, reporting the incident both to their airline and the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority. They reported that they received little sleep over two nights due to busy flying schedules and planned to take twenty minute naps in rotation. A pilot reported “both members of flight crew had only 5 hrs sleep in two nights due to longer duty period with insufficient opportunity to sleep,” according to a report by the CAA.
Though the UK has rules governing how much sleep pilots require before they may operate an aircraft, it’s unclear how much sleep pilots are actually getting because of changes in time zones when flying internationally. “Essentially, we do not know how long these ‘two nights’ lasted. Due to time differences these two nights might have actually been spread over only 36 hours. The pilots could have flown out of the U.K. during the night, arrived at their destination in the afternoon local time, rested for the second night … and then flown back to the U.K. the following morning, all within legal limits,” said spokesman Richard Taylor.
The head of the British Airlines Pilots Association, the union representing pilots, blamed the CAA for lax regulations and called fatigue the “biggest challenge” pilots face. “As the regulator responsible for UK flight safety the CAA has been far too complacent about the levels of tiredness among British pilots and failing to acknowledge the scale of the underreported problem,” said Jim McAuslan, BALPA general secretary in a statement.