Killing Time

Humans are simply not biologically programmed for the 24/7 rigours of the aviation industry. Aimée Turner clocks in to investigate the fatigue issues.

Comair flight 5191 did much to elevate the issue of fatigue within the air traffic control community. The 2006 tragedy was the result of the Bombardier regional jet overrunning the end of the Lexington, Kentucky, runway before it could become airborne, killing all 47 passengers and two of the three flight crew.

The next year the National Safety Transportation Board issued three recommendations on measures to prevent fatigue affecting the performance of controllers, one to prevent them from carrying out non-essential administrative tasks while aircraft are taxiing under their control.

Six years on, there is a real prospect of potentially radical mitigation measures being developed for air traffic control as US aviation agency ICAO readies itself to develop a bespoke system to mitigate the ever present risk of fatigue.

Lydia Hambour, director of fatigue risk management at American Airlines, helped develop a Fatigue Risk Management System or FRMS for UK low cost carrier EasyJet, integrating the system operationally and assessing the impact of crew fatigue on performance.


“24-hour operations expose employees in the aviation industry to varying and often lengthy periods of time on duty, disruption to circadian patterns compounded by reduced and often interrupted rest periods. On top of this are workload influences, including external and internal factors that can vary from one duty or shift to the next,” she explains. “These hazards can interact and result in a fatigued employee – one whose ability to perform safety-related duties is impaired.”

Professor Philippe Cabon is a human factors professor at Paris Descartes University and a member of the ICAO task force that developed the standard recommended practices and guidelines for the airline FRMS that were issued in 2011 as an alternative to prescriptive flight and duty limitations to address crew fatigue.

He says progress by the industry to address this critical safety issue – even since the NTSB declared fatigue as one of its ‘most wanted’ – has been slow despite the large amount of available scientific knowledge. “The reason is probably because fatigue is a complex concept raising issues beyond safety such as productivity and social aspects,” he says.

IFATCA, the international organisation representing approximately 40,000 air traffic controllers in more than 100 countries, has lobbied long and hard for a FRMS for the profession. It believes that the safety prerogative has been railroaded.

Labour Issue

In a working paper presented by IFATCA at the recent ICAO 12th Air Navigation Conference it insisted that for too long, fatigue management has been addressed as a labour relations rather than a safety management issue.

IFATCA reckons that as the industry embraces a safety management ethos, it is now time to treat fatigue management as a component of a safety management system. After all, the same principles can be applied as for the management of other safety hazards and FRMS fits well within existing frameworks, based as it is on a pragmatic review of operational practices augmented by scientific knowledge.

Scheduling has, it is true, become a frequent proxy in the labour bargaining process, on all sides of the equation: by both employers and employee organisations.

As Cabon points out, the organisation of duty cycles is devilishly difficult simply because the ideal schedule does not exist. Scheduling is always a compromise between safety, health requirements, productivity and social acceptance.

Industrial negotiations may influence remuneration and how many hours people work, but they do not necessarily address safety. If improved safety outcomes are the goal, FRMS offers a real step in the right direction:Millar

“One of the first aspects to consider is the direction of shift, i.e. clockwise known as delayed rotation or counterclockwise known as advanced rotation. From a physiological point of view, most shift work experts argue that clockwise rotations are better than counterclockwise rotations because of the dynamics of the circadian cycle, which has a natural delaying trend,” he explains.

From the controller’s perspective, however, such delaying schedules are often unpopular as they tend to compress the weekend and so, if a clockwise schedule is adopted, it is necessary to find a way to keep sufficient time off for the weekend period.

Here, Dr Michelle Millar, FRMS project co-ordinator at ICAO, notes that to be successful, a workable system for the world’s controller community requires the same level of tripartite collaboration as occurred between ICAO, airline industry body IATA and pilot organisation IFALPA that led to the successful development of the airline FRMS last year.

“Industrial negotiations may influence remuneration and how many hours people work, but they do not necessarily address safety. If improved safety outcomes are the goal, FRMS offers a real step in the right direction,” says Dr Millar. “Separating these considerations requires a strong relationship between the union, the operator or service provider and the regulator.”

For Lydia Hambour, an organisation intent on implementing a FRMS will therefore require a programme of education and awareness training so that all parties are clear about their respective obligations.

Safety Absolute

“If the understanding of FRMS is unclear it may be perceived solely as a means of increasing employee productivity. Conversely, at the other extreme, it may be seen as facilitating employee absence through providing a readily accessible justification based on abuse of a safety absolute.”

To prevent both scenarios, Hambour says it is vital that an FRMS is based on scientific evidence, objectivity and transparency and is underpinned by organisational commitment to a just culture and non-jeopardy reporting.

The alternative, as Hambour sees it: simply relying on legal limitations as a means of controlling the fatigue risk is fast becoming acknowledged as incomplete and therefore unacceptable.

FRMS essentially provides a way of extracting data from the specific operational environment and comparing it with scientific knowledge on sleep and shift sequences. It therefore effectively manages the risks posed by fatigue as a result of the operational circumstances that actually exist. It is proactive and continuous so as to identify the risks, implement mitigating strategies and review the outcome, ensuring the risks are controlled effectively and continuously.

The essential challenge of FRMS therefore is to overcome the inertia which is part and parcel of more static legacy solutions. Those who have already embarked on FRMS within the airline industry would agree that it is far from easy to implement and that it requires not only a willingness to change but also a genuine shift in mindset to a position where operational fatigue risk is actively managed.

Sadly, we have known examples where an implemented FRMS is little more than a ‘box ticking exercise’ where base rosters are usually at the maximum permitted fatigue level: Shallies

While FRMS does require education, increased expertise and understanding, its champions are convinced that any investment made will be recoverable through the accrued benefits it brings. The ultimate upside for the controller community is a situation where there is a demonstrable reduction in incidents, cognitive slips and lapses accompanied by less instances of impaired decision-making, less communication failures and less risk-taking behaviour.

David Hillis from scheduling software business Quintiq says the potential increase in complexity involved in existing within a FRMS environment would mean that more ANSPs would need specifically developed systems. “What ANSPs are concerned about is that FRMS means more rules, more restrictions in how they can plan – and that that will cost them more. We would say that if you have a good system you can generate good and efficient rosters and still meet FRMS requirements and you may not be able to do that with a spreadsheet.”

With the prospect of a global FRMS for controllers by the end of 2015, Scott Shallies, executive vice president at IFATCA issues a salutary warning. “Sadly, we have known examples where an implemented FRMS is little more than a ‘box ticking exercise’, where base rosters are usually at the maximum permitted fatigue level, and where any extra hours inevitably push the individual above ‘acceptable’ limits, but are nevertheless assessed as ‘safe’ by a rudimentary measure of prior sleep and management ‘acceptance’ of ‘residual’ risk,” he says.

Like any tool, Shallies believes an FRMS only works properly if it has been built and used properly. That is why IFATCA policy calls for a future FRMS to be auditable, by the regulator, as part of a safety management system.

Posted in Features, Operations, Safety

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