Improving Airline Safety through the Analysis of Pilot Fatigue
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leicester
Unit of AssessmentBusiness and Management Studies
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services: Transportation and Freight Services
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Flight safety has been a major focus in the past sixteen years at the
Civil Safety and Security Unit (CSSU), affiliated with the University of
Leicester's School of Management. The knowledge created has had three
impacts. First, the development of a tailored fatigue-risk management
system (FRMS) now in operation in a night-freight airline. FRMS provides
for the development and validation of rosters that optimise crews'
economic and safety performance, saving lives and money. Until this
research no UK-registered night-freight airline had operated a FRMS.
Second, the research underpins the evidence-base for the British Air Line
Pilots' Association (BALPA) in its lobbying of the European Aviation
Safety Agency (EASA). Third, the research is supporting the Society for
the Welfare of Indian Pilots (SWIP) in its campaign for safe flight-time
CSSU has an international reputation for risk management expertise. The
research underpinning the impacts was carried out at the University of
Leicester, in part funded by BALPA who awarded £53k to Dr Simon Bennett
(Leicester since 1992) to research the pilot lifestyle. It was conducted
in three overlapping phases. Between 1998 and 2013 Bennett conducted much
research into the safety impacts of stress and fatigue. Between January
2008 and June 2011, this knowledge was used to develop a bespoke FRMS for
a night-freight airline. Prior to this FRMSs had been used mainly in
passenger airlines. The unique aspect of night-freight is that all
services are operated through the circadian low. The chosen airline was
known for its roster volatility. Finally, between November 2010 and April
2011 a study of pilot lifestyle was initiated by the British Air Line
Pilots' Association (BALPA).
The initiative for each phase was the previous phase and the knowledge
creation itself an impact of the original research. The project began as a
normal social scientific study, Mode 1 science in Gibbons et al's
terms, but developed through a participant observation/action research
study into Mode 2, in which knowledge emerged in the context of
application. The research was unique because it correlated stress and
fatigue with pilot lifestyle.
In phase one, the major findings (1, 2, 3) of the research were that:
a) flight-crew represent a peripatetic workforce — a `pilot diaspora' —
for which commute-to-work distances are increasing
b) the peripatetic lifestyle causes physical and psychological stress
c) such stresses can impact a pilot's working and home life
d) context-sensitive rostering can help mitigate stresses and reduce
turnover (and costs)
e) pilots need to `unburden'
f) pilots constitute a committed, cohesive and mutually-supportive
g) managers should work with, rather than against this strong flight-deck
Phase two involved a three-and-a-half year research partnership with a
night-freight airline (4, 5). First, ethnographic research recorded the
`lived experience' of flight-deck labour and other methods included: a
sleep-diary study; analysis of Mandatory Occurrence Reports; the
post-incident debriefing of pilots; participant observation of flight-deck
operations and the down-route lifestyle; interviews. Bennett delivered
initial FRMS training to pilots and managers, analysed Crew Fatigue
Reports and made recommendations. His on-going research — particularly
into the effects of changes to rosters and positioning practices on
fatigue and efficiency — was used to optimise the system. The research
a) Commute-to-work times impacted pilots' physical and psychological
health and fatigue levels
b) Pressure on bottom-end salaries left some pilots unable to afford
c) Consequences included arduous commutes and inappropriate use of
facilities equipped for napping. Acute/chronic fatigue as well as health,
psychological and relationship problems resulted
d) FRMS helped the airline identify and correct fatigue-inducing rosters
e) Pilots form cohesive, self-reliant, norm-driven and
mutually-supporting groups, even when there is no union representation
f) Safety cannot be considered in isolation from other factors, like
financial reward and the property market
Phase 3 involved a social-psychological study of the commercial pilot
lifestyle based on 433 questionnaire responses, 130 sleep diaries and
interviews (6). The findings included that pilots:
a) Perceived unsympathetic rostering to cause stress and fatigue
b) Perceived the peripatetic lifestyle to cause stress, fatigue,
low-morale, relationship problems and financial pain
c) Believed a healthy reporting climate to be a prerequisite for the
comprehensive and timely reporting of fatigue-risk
d) Believed that under-reporting weakened FRMSs
e) Attempted to keep fit despite being fatigued
f) Tended not to trust airline authority figures and Aviation Medical
g) Sometimes reported for work when they should have reported sick and
sometimes reported sick when they were suffering acute or chronic fatigue
h) Formed a cohesive work-group and believed that UK aviation is
References to the research
1. Bennett, S.A. (2003) Flight crew stress and fatigue in low-cost
commercial air operations — an appraisal. International Journal of
Risk Assessment and Management. 4/2: 207-231.
2. Bennett, S.A. (2006) A longitudinal ethnographic study of aircrews'
lived experience of flying operations at a low-cost airline. Risk
Management: An International Journal. 8/2: 92-117.
3. Bennett, S.A. (2006) A Sociology of Commercial Flight Crew.
4. Bennett, S.A. (2010) A longitudinal ethnographic study of night
freight pilots. Journal of Risk Research. 13/6: 701-730.
5. Bennett, S.A. (2011) A Study of the Sleeping Patterns of Night-Freight
Pilots Operating in Europe. Journal of Aviation and Aerospace
Perspectives. 1/2: 36-57.
6. Bennett, S.A. (2012) Self-assessment — a useful contribution to our
understanding of pilot fatigue? Aviation in Focus. 3/1: 53-99.
Details of the impact
The research has had global impact in three areas — the development and
testing of a FRMS; campaigns against the liberalisation of EU FTLs; and
(on-going) campaigns by the Society for the Welfare of Indian Pilots
against similar liberalisation proposals.
The night-freight airline, aware of Bennett's research, asked him to
tailor the FRMS model to accommodate the fatigue-risk management needs of
a night-freight operator. To refine the FRMS Bennett conducted surveys
throughout his 3.5 years at the airline. The design of the FRMS involved
modification of the standard International Civil Aviation Organization
model to accommodate intense night operations through the circadian low.
The adaptive work drew on Bennett's research into flight-deck labour.
Testing and refinement of the system was based on his involvement as an
action-researcher. Bennett's participant observation/action research
approach helped maintain pilot engagement which assisted in the
identification of feedback problems in the standard FRMS system. Without
feedback FRMS becomes a source of risk.
The development of a FRMS allowed the airline to verify and fine-tune
rosters. It enabled the development and validation of a variation that
satisfied both the CAA's safety criteria and the airline's operational
requirements. Data generated by the FRMS was used to optimise the
trans-Atlantic rosters such that an acceptable safety margin was
maintained. Bennett's work (validated by the CAA) laid the foundations for
a `virtuous circle' of research. Because they required the introduction of
the new, larger Boeing 767F, the trans-Atlantic services revolutionised
the airline's operations. For example, instead of a crew heading to Italy
on the same day they were due to operate from that country, they were
flown out the day before, allowing them to sleep prior to their duty.
After this roster change, the FRMS confirmed the beneficial impact on
fatigue levels (fewer fatigue reports were filed for this duty). Bennett
confirmed the safety benefits of new facilities (like a new sleeping
facility at the airline's Italian hub and expanded accommodation at its
The night-freight FRMS research attracted BALPA's attention, who
commissioned Bennett to further investigate the pilot lifestyle. BALPA has
10,000 members. Bennett had contributed to BALPA's journals for over a
decade and his report The Pilot Lifestyle was distributed to the
European Commission, European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), ICAO,
International Air Transport Association (IATA), CAA, Members of the
European Parliament, Members of the UK Parliament, airline managements,
pilots, civil servants, journalists and trade unions. Bennett engaged with
opinion-formers and decision-makers, in 2011 attending a Parliamentary
Reception to bring this research to the attention of Ministers. Since
publication of The Pilot Lifestyle Bennett has contributed to the
media debate (via, for example, the newspaper Politiken and a lead
news item for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in June 2013, a Channel
4 documentary in July 2013). He has corresponded with the British Prime
Minister, the Minister of State for Transport, the Chair of the Transport
Select Committee, the CAA's Head of Safety Strategy, the Chief Executive
of the United Kingdom Flight Safety Committee, the Chairman of the All
Party Parliamentary Group for Freight Transport and the Executive Director
of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. The EU
campaigns included the writing of papers that were strongly informed by
Bennett's research. An example is a lobby paper written by Bennett for the
Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (Contemporary
issues: Fatigue impacts of employee commutes). An example of a
position paper is that written for a Parliamentary Reception hosted by
BALPA (Executive summary of The Pilot Lifestyle: a sociological study
of the commercial pilot's work and home life). The Indian campaigns
included the publication of a report by Moebus Aviation on behalf of SWIP.
Bennett contributed a chapter to the report.
Documents and presentations made by BALPA and Bennett were part of a
campaign to show that the harmonisation of standards in the EU would relax
rather than improve them. Bennett's main contributions were The Pilot
Lifestyle and his contribution to the position paper The Next
Chapter. He published summaries of his BALPA-funded research
throughout 2011 and 2012 (in the Flight Safety Foundation's AeroSafety
World, the Royal Aeronautical Society's The Aerospace
Professional and the UK Flight Safety Committee's Focus on
Commercial Aviation Safety). Bennett's action-research made him an
actor in BALPA's campaign against the harmonisation of EU FTLs. In a
letter, BALPA's Head of Flight Safety said: "I am pleased to say your work
has importantly informed the current BALPA Safety Plan and also the
current House of Commons Select Committee enquiry into pilot fatigue."
Further union work, specifically participation in the UK Independent
Pilots' Association campaign video Pilot Fatigue: Is Your Captain Awake?
The documentary drew on his research findings and featured Bennett talking
about the factors that induce pilot fatigue. The BBC approached Bennett
for an interview. A former Training Captain wrote to Bennett: "I would
like to congratulate you on your crystal-clear analysis of the fatigue
issue in the IPA pilot fatigue film; very well done."
Bennett's publications and his work for BALPA and the night-freight
airline attracted the attention of Moebus Aviation, a consultancy engaged
by the Society for the Welfare of Indian Pilots to help it campaign for
safe FTLs. Bennett contributed a 950-word critique of the FRMS methodology
(`Fatigue-risk management systems — requirements for successful
operation') to Moebus Aviation's 2012 report.
In the Summer of 2012 Bennett secured a 12-month research placement with
British Airways World Cargo (BAWC). The airline's ultra long-haul (ULH)
operation will add a new dimension to Bennett's research and produce
further impact in the future.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Programme Director, MSc Air Transport Management, City University
- General Secretary, British Air Line Pilots' Association
- Member, Flight Operations Group, Royal Aeronautical Society
- Safety Manager, DHL Air, Cargo West, East Midlands Airport, "I would
like to thank you for your academic input, hard work and support which
has allowed us to develop a pro-active and industry-leading fatigue-risk
management system" (letter dated 17 February, 2011).
- Member, BALPA National Executive Committee: "I really appreciate what
you are doing to help us with regard to flight safety, and explaining
from an informed point of view. So glad we got you to do the pilot
lifestyle study." (e-mail dated 10 January, 2013)
Flight International, "BALPA has commissioned a human factors
expert from Leicester University, Dr Simon Bennett, to carry out a
wide-ranging study of modern airline crew lifestyle, and its potential
effects on pilot competency. This will examine the effects of numerous
factors, like the increasing need for pilots to commute long distances
to work, and the stresses caused by high levels of personal debt
resulting from the fact that pilots increasingly pay for all their
training. This mirrors many of the Australian Senate concerns" (article
dated 18 February, 2011).