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Can airlines afford to be gender neutral in fatigue management?
For the first 8 or 9 hours in a shift, the accident risk is constant, but after 12 hours, the risk approximately doubles and after 16 hours, it trebles.
Shift-workers, particularly those on rotating shifts, have a higher incidence of sick leave, a higher rate of visits to clinics at the work site, and poorer scores on a variety of measures of health.
62% of shift-workers complained of sleep problems, compared with 20% of day-workers.by Author
The above statistics, released by the United Kingdom Health & Safety Executive, probably has nothing to do with airline operations directly. But it has everything to do with people – like the highly trained pilots who fly the aircraft, the terribly overloaded operations control staff who help get the plane in the air, and the much under-appreciated cabin crew members who not only pamper passengers with their service but also ensure their safety in an emergency. Sharpening the tools for their job primarily means keeping their minds and bodies in a state of high alert on a constant basis.
Airline companies around the world are fully cognizant of crew member fatigue as a hazard to safe operations, as are technology providers like us who are ploughing lots of R&D dollars into effective management of this issue. Managing this risk, as opposed to eliminating it, calls for a very structured approach – often with significant investment but certainly with an impact on the bottom line.
Problem with a prescriptive approach
IATA defines this approach thus: Operations must remain within prescribed limits established by the regulator for flight time, flight duty periods, duty periods and rest periods. The crux of such a system is to place restrictions on maximum flying hours and duty hours, while mandating a certain number of resting hours per duty cycle. These are strictly regulated, however it is far from adaptive in nature. It doesn't comprehensively cover the dynamic characteristics of airline operations. It assumes that one size fits all and thus effectively restricts the airline from taking into account unusual circumstances and tools.
On the other hand, implementation of such a system is fairly simple. Because an employee was off duty for a certain period of time, the airline is legally allowed to assume that he/she got sufficient rest during this period and is therefore refreshed and ready for the next duty cycle. As long as the duty cycle does not last beyond a specific number of hours, the employee is assumed to be sufficiently alert and capable during the entire time period. However, this also means that the airline is not able to identify several of the genuine issues and incidents arising from crew fatigue, just because obedience to the prescribed regulations is taken as sufficient effort for risk management.
Performance-based regulatory approach
This is the far more adaptive approach which acknowledges the specific conditions and practices that contribute to crew fatigue and allow the airline to mitigate them in a more focused manner. It is significantly more data-centric, and lets tangible metrics be the basis for decision making. A key aspect of this approach is that airline companies are expected to build a customized Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) that takes into account the nature and environment of their business operations.
Recognizing the existence of fatigue is the first step. This can be done in a variety of ways, low tech as well as high tech, but the most promising amongst these involves the use of wearable devices to measure biological parameters such as duration of sleep, quality of sleep, body temperature, blood pressure, etc. and to use algorithms to predict how this will affect specific aspects of alertness necessary for each role. If a particular crew member scores anomalously on any of the parameters it is a red flag; the individual may either be removed from the roster for that flight or be relieved of some tasks which may then be handed over to a fellow member of the crew. Reliable models are necessary for this to be carried out, and this will be a key differentiator for crew management platforms of this generation and the next.
Financial benefits of an effective approach
Fatigue in crew members is not merely a standalone metric – it has a profound effect on errors made on the job, handling of customer interfacing incidents, emergency management and as a result the overall quality of service provided to the passengers. Major issues can result in compensation payouts or even penalties that may significantly hit the bottom line. Managing fatigue effectively is therefore a direct cost savings method, as well as a demonstrable reason for lower insurance premiums. Employee morale and customer goodwill are other aspects, on which you cannot put a tangible dollar value.
Socio-cultural elements and the cue for discrimination
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Fatigue Management Guide, some of the key fatigue hazards stem from familial factors – such as sleep interrupted by a new baby in the household. At least in some cultures, there is a marked gender bias in the implicit assignment of these duties. Therefore the gap between assigned hours of rest and actual rest achieved will be wider in some groups more than others. On the other hand, some cultures may consider it as a weakness if anyone fails to report for duty owing to lack of rest – this will result in symptoms being concealed and thereby going unnoticed in low tech methods of measurement. At least in these regions/cultures the model absolutely has to account for these biases.
How significant are these numbers? Skift.com reports that while women make up around half of the cabin crew, a mere 5.2% figure inside the cockpit. Industry resource Women in Aviation estimates there are around 43,000 women pilots around the world, which will translate into a good number of person-hours on duty.
Conclusion: No one size fits all solution
It bears some irony that the focus on human fatigue comes into the picture more these days because we were able to automate many of the tasks – a reduction in technical failure plus an increase in the human activity baseline. The recently concluded OPS 2020 event at Miami brought together operations and crew management experts from around the globe in an exceptional think tank session, designed to tackle head on some of the core issues faced by companies in this sector.
From a technology provider perspective, the flexibility required by an airline for an effective FRMS solution translates into a high level of configurability, which is a key feature of the iFlight NEO platform. Let's agree that fatigue cannot be eliminated – humans are after all, aligned to a work-rest cycle which has its limitations. But let's also not lose sight of the fact that effective management of such fatigue is easily within reach with the right platform!
Daniel Stecher is Vice President of Airline Operations at IBS, and has more than 20 years of experience in the aviation and logistics industries. Prior to joining the IBS family, he was product manager and consultant for the schedule management, operations control and crew management product at Lufthansa Systems. Daniel is perpetually on the move, having raked up literally over a million miles of business travel in his career. He enjoys delicious home cooked food, reading books and the odd round of golf in his spare time.
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