Airline staffing crisis raises concerns about pilot fatigue

Airline staffing crisis raises concerns about pilot fatigue

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.”

Storms and airline staff shortages create travel chaos


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.”