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What happens if a pilot falls asleep?

What happens if a pilot falls asleep?

A new report that two airline pilots fell asleep mid-flight and missed the plane’s landing has given the public a rare glimpse at life behind the cockpit doors in the era of COVID-19 . A pair of Ethiopian Airlines pilots were napping simultaneously when they were supposed to be landing the plane, according to industry news site Aviation Herald. They woke up once the autopilot disengaged and set off an alarm. While investigators are looking into exactly what happened during the flight, one thing is already well-known: Airlines around the world are facing a shortage of pilots and other flight crew members, which can lead to worker exhaustion and burnout.

«I think it’s reflective of an increasing concern that pilots have across the globe of just being overworked, need to work more overtime, because of those pilot shortages,» Lindsey Roeschke, a travel and hospitality analyst for Morning Consult, told CBS News.

What’s behind the pilot shortage?

As COVID-19 was spreading in 2020 and 2021, when airline operations came to a near standstill, carriers offered early retirement to thousands of pilots in an effort to slash costs. An aging workforce has also led significant numbers of older pilots to retire as scheduled, further reducing the number of available flyers.

Meanwhile, there is no quick fix, Roeschke said, noting that even raising wages is ineffective because it simply spurs pilots to move to higher-paying airlines rather than expanding the pilot pool. «Airlines can hire as much staff as they want to hire, but it takes a long time for pilots to be trained, certified. It’s not only a time commitment but a financial commitment to invest for pilots when they’re initially going through those steps,» Roeschke said. «So it does have a long tail unfortunately, everything that happened during the pandemic.»

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Storms and airline staff shortages create travel chaos 02:02 The best way to stem pilot fatigue, as well as reduce the onerous flight delays and cancellations that have plagued the airline industry of late, is for airlines to trim their schedules, experts say. Along those lines, London’s Heathrow Airport this summer said it would cap the number of daily passengers at 100,000 and also told airlines to stop selling tickets on summer flights. «That’s not what we want to hear as travelers, but at the same time cutting back on some of those routes and tamping down expectations of how many flights airlines are actually going to be able to actually execute will help to avoid those last-minute delays and cancellations,» she said.

Added Roeschke, «In the short term, it might make flights a little bit harder to come by, maybe a little bit more expensive, maybe a little bit more crowded, which of course is frustrating to hear as passengers. But will help to deter those showing up to the airport and finding out ‘your flight is cancelled’ those types of experience, which are worse than the alternative.»

Ethiopian Airlines Suspends Pilots After They Reportedly Fell Asleep, Missed Landing

FILE - Ethiopian Airlines planes are seen at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 7, 2020.

Ethiopian Airlines has suspended the crew of a flight on which both pilots reportedly fell asleep and missed their landing window in Addis Ababa.

The plane eventually landed safely, but experts said the incident raised questions about pilot fatigue on the airline, the largest air carrier in Africa.

The Aviation Herald, a news website for the aviation industry, reported Thursday that the two pilots were flying a Boeing 737 from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to Addis Ababa, apparently on Monday. “After overflying [the runway] … the autopilot disconnected, the disconnect wailer woke the crew up, who then maneuvered the aircraft for a safe landing,” the report said.

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Ethiopian Airlines said Friday that the crew had been «removed from operation pending further investigation. Appropriate corrective action will be taken based on the outcome of the investigation. Safety has always been and will continue to be our first priority.”

The statement did not say whether the pilots had been sleeping.

Experts said the incident could have been a result of the airline overworking the pilots or other external factors.

Hassan Shahidi of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization, told VOA that pilot fatigue «would certainly be investigated in terms of exactly how many hours they were flying and potentially whether fatigue or scheduling may have played a role in this, but it is, at the end of the day, the responsibility of the crew if they are fatigued or if they are tired, to report that they’re tired.”

US, EU regulations

Airlines that fly in and out of the U.S. and European Union, as Ethiopian Airlines does, are bound by safety rules set by regulatory bodies in those jurisdictions. Failure to meet those rules means airlines can be banned from flying to U.S. and EU destinations.

The EU aviation regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told VOA via email that it was aware of the incident.

It said the agency evaluates information from many sources as part of its continuous monitoring of non-EU air carriers “and takes action as appropriate to ensure operations meet our safety expectations.”

The agency said it does not comment on individual cases.

Experts said a single incident like this was unlikely to jeopardize an airline’s ability to fly to the U.S. and EU.

Do pilots take turns on long flights?

Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s largest carrier and, according to experts, has a good safety record. Sean Mendis, a former regional airline manager in Africa, said, “I would not hesitate to fly on Ethiopian myself. I was on two Ethiopian Airlines flights this week already. I’ve got another one booked for the next few weeks. And, you know, Ethiopian does remain one of the safest airlines in Africa and, indeed, in the world.”

The outcome of the investigation was expected to come quickly, as Ethiopian Airlines attempts to dispel passenger concerns over safety.

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