Fatigue Management in Pilots and Flight Attendants

Subject: Transportation
Pages: 12
Words: 3322
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: Undergraduate


Although pilot fatigue is a long-standing concern in the aviation industry due to increased incidences and accidents in commercial aviation, fatigue experienced by flight workers, and, to a lesser extent, flight traffic control and maintenance workers are also a major concern. Experts consider pilot fatigue as a serious problem in commercial aviation as it increases the risk of error that could result in accidents. As a result, to ensure aviation safety, most international and national air operators assign pilots specific times of duty and periods of rest as per the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. However, the fatigue experienced by the flight crew and attendants poses great safety risks to passengers during flight.

The effective reaction time and performance efficiency decrease in extreme fatigue. This raises concern as regards the safety and security of the passengers as well as that of aviation employees. Flight attendants play a very crucial role as regards safety in the aviation industry; they usually board passenger aircraft to assist in case of any emergency. The flight attendants are the first responders in case of incidences of fire or smoke during flights. The recent increase in insecurity, due to terrorist threats, in the aviation industry has resulted in increased responsibilities of the flight attendants. As a result, flight operators require that the attendants should remain vigilant to take note of any alarming situation or passenger behavior in the aircraft cabin at all times during flights.

With the increased responsibilities performed by the cabin crew and flight attendants, fatigue seems inevitable in aviation. Fatigue can have serious implications on the safety and security of the air travelers as well as that of the crewmembers not only during flights but also when performing other activities such as driving after flights. By educating the crewmembers and flight attendants on the effects of fatigue and the importance of quality and sufficient sleep, it is possible to realize effective management of fatigue (Caldwell, 1997, p.639). Educational programs targeting pilots and crewmembers on the dangers of fatigue and the importance of quality sleep can be an effective strategy for the management of fatigue.

Pilot Fatigue

Caldwell and Caldwell (2003) attribute the high percentage of flight accidents in the world mainly to inadequate sleep by the crewmembers (p. 67). Inadequate sleep is the major cause of fatigue among crewmembers. Good and quality sleep of up to eight hours could significantly reduce the risk of fatigue in pilots. A decline in sleeping hours results in an accumulation of sleep over time, which eventually causes pilot fatigue. Night flights affect the normal sleep cycle, which reduces the level of pilot alertness and induces fatigue. On other hand, daytime sleep by pilots working in night shifts presents a major problem, as it is often shorter than it is at night. Early reporting to the places of work deprives these pilots of enough sleep, therefore making them prone to fatigue during daytime flights. Consecutive flight duties with fewer resting periods culminate into sleep debt, which causes fatigue.

The workload assigned to the pilots is the major cause of fatigue during duty hours. Aviation often involves intensive mental work; consequently, pilots need sufficient rest to remain alert during subsequent flights. However, the heavy workload assigned to pilots, particularly short-distance flight pilots causes fatigue as they have to perform many take-offs. In contrast, long-distance pilots engage in a single long-distance flight in 24-hour duration and therefore are less prone to fatigue. It, therefore, implies that short-distance pilots are more prone to fatigue than their long-distance counterparts are. However, long-distance flight pilots experience mental boredom due to the long continuous flight period. This can cause fatigue. Long-haul flights pilots have prolonged duty periods, which implies that they have to remain alert for long periods; thus, they become easily fatigued.

Psychological and physical factors may also lead to an increased risk of fatigue among the crewmembers (Green et al., 1996, p. 56). Diagnosable sleep upsets such as insomnia affect the sleeping pattern of an individual, causing fatigue and a decline in the level of alertness among the crewmembers. Psychological factors such as stress and anxiety also impair the pilot’s performance during flights. Medical conditions such as hypoxia characterized by oxygen deficiency affect the functioning of the brain leading to fatigue. Illnesses such as anemia and influenza also cause pilot fatigue and affect the performance of the crewmembers. Nutrition factors such as low blood sugar and excessive body weight also make the crewmembers prone to fatigue.

The world time zones affect the physiological and behavioral processes of an individual. In particular, the time zones affect the sleep/wake cycle and eating patterns of the crewmembers, thus causing fatigue among them (Caldwell, & Caldwell, 2003, p. 72). The difference in time zones disrupts the circadian rhythms by affecting the sleep and eating patterns of the crewmembers. A flight crossing a time zone, particularly the meridian, affects the night and day shifts. Consequently, the sleeping and eating patterns of the crew have to change; this affects their activity and alertness. Flights crossing three time zones have significant effects on the eating and sleeping patterns of the crewmembers. Flights from east to west result in a prolonged length of the day while flights from west to east experience a shortened length of day.

To promote the safety of air transportation, the aviation industry assigns pilots specific flight hours and rest periods. These requirements aim at reducing the fatigue of pilots during flights. In particular, they aim at reducing fatigue caused by night flights and flights that involve many take-offs and landings (Caldwell, 1997, p. 638). As per the Aviation Recommendation Committee (ARC) recommendations, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has developed a maximum flight duty period (FDP) for flight crews based on their performance during flights. The crew duty limit considers the flight duration, the time of take-off and landing, and the duration of rest. In addition, the FDP depends on the level of fatigue experienced by the crewmembers during flights. Flights that involve multiple legs in a single flight duty period cause more fatigue than duty periods involving a single segment. The crew duty limit spans from the time the crewmember reports for duty and ends on landing and parking of the plane.

The FAA provides that a pilot should fly a maximum of a thousand hours per year excluding any possible extensions. A pilot should fly a maximum of a hundred hours and thirty hours within a month and a week respectively. In addition, FAA allows a pilot a maximum of eight hours of flight period in between the recommended rest periods. The FAA has also a set of rest rules that govern pilots after the completion of a flight segment and before the next scheduled flight. They have a rest period of nine consecutive hours for eight-hour flights and a rest period of ten hours for flights taking more than eight hours but less than nine hours in the 24-hour flight segment. FAA grants the pilots an eleven-hour rest after a scheduled flight of nine or more hours. In scheduling the rest periods of the pilots, the scheduling officer considers two factors: cumulative duty time and the type of tasks. The time of waking up of the crew and the duration between preflight and actual flight is also significant in the determination of the maximum limit of the flight period. Extension of the normal duration of duty can occur due to delays in flights.

Flight Attendants Fatigue

In most countries, various duty-time regulations govern flight attendants’ operations. However, few operators offer sufficient rest periods to the flight attendants and cabin crews. According to Caldwell (1997, p.641), “most operators relief pilots of their scheduled flights because of fatigue but the same does not apply to flight attendants”. However, the issues that cause pilot fatigue such as changes in time zones, sleep deprivation, and unsuitable work time hours also cause fatigue among the flight attendants. Most importantly, the length of the flight duty period (FDP) affects flight attendants more than pilots due to the lack of appropriate regulations within the limits of the FDP.

Following the security threats facing the aviation industry, currently, flight attendants have a greater responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of the on-flight passengers. According to Caldwell and Caldwell (2003), the contemporary FAA rules governing flight attendant’s rest and duty periods, “demand that operators should allocate a minimum of nine hours for rest period within a 24-hour flight period…the operators can however reduce this to eight hours if the previous rest period spanned for ten consecutive hours” (p.61). Although these regulations serve to reduce fatigue in-flight attendants, they do not reflect the additional security responsibilities they assume in the advent of security threats in 2001 to the aviation industry. Additionally, some operators schedule flight attendants a rest period that is less than eight hours, which FAA regulations recommend. Since, the rest period includes time spent at the customs after a flight, time spent when moving to a hotel and checking in, the eight-hour rest period is insufficient.

FAA allows a flight attendant a “12-hour rest period after a scheduled flight of more than 14 hours but less than 20 hourshowever, the operator can reduce this to 10 hours if the following rest period spans more than 14 hours” (Stokes, & Kite, 1994, p. 114). The regulations allow for the extension of a 14-hour duty period for up to a maximum of 20 hours as long as the operator includes r additional flight attendants in the flight.

The FAA does not regulate the rest hours of the flight attendants. In addition, the regulations do not specify the timing of the duty periods and the maximum number of hours a flight attendant should work in a month. In contrast, the regulations outline the rest periods and the maximum monthly duty hours for pilots. Thus, the long duty hours coupled with the many responsibilities and reduced rest period result in increased fatigue in flight attendants.

Flight Attendants’ Responsibilities

The number of daily flights and air travelers (the load factor) has continued to rise over the years, with seats especially in economy class becoming highly packed in both domestic and foreign flights. According to Alter and Mohler (1980, p.169), the load factor for United States’ domestic and foreign flights increased by 13% between 1986 and 1999; covering 813 miles up from 767 miles for domestic flights and 3000 miles up from 2500 miles for foreign trips. Currently, flights taking 12-14 consecutive hours are common, particularly in foreign flights. Previously, the workload duties for flight attendants involved “checking the passenger passports, caring for children, providing reading, and writing materials, serving up to three meals, and cleaning the dishes” (Green et al., 1996, p. 56); however, with the increased security concerns in the airline industry, their workload has increased.

The FAA regulations specify that an aircraft of “9-50 travelers require one attendant while a 51-100 passenger aircraft requires two attendants and an additional attendant for every 50 extra seats” (Stokes, & Kite, 1994, p. 116). Nevertheless, due to increased responsibilities coupled with an increased number of flights and flight duration, it is possible that some flight attendants can have a duty period of up to 25 hours without sleep. Typically, the roles of the flight attendants involve “pre-flight, on flight and post-flight tasks” (Alter, & Mohler, 1980, p.175). Thus, flight attendants must arrive early, about two hours, before the flight to carry out pre-flight screening. Additionally, flight attendants have to: attend a pre-flight briefing, ensure that all the emergency equipment is in good working condition, oversee passenger boarding, stow passenger luggage and perform necessary paperwork on behalf of the flight crew.

During flights, the attendants have to attend to passengers to ensure their comfort and safety. Flight attendants provide safety instructions to passengers, provide drinks and serve meals, provide reading materials and magazines to the passengers, assist in operating the audio equipment, and communicate with passengers in case of any eventuality. Additionally, during flights, they perform additional responsibilities in case of emergencies. They inform the crewmembers of any emergency or equipment failure. They also, administer first aid and provide medication to ill passengers. In case of an emergency, they provide safety instructions to the passengers, help in the evacuation of the passengers and operate the emergency equipment during emergency landing (Alter, & Mohler, 1980, p.168). The post-flight tasks performed by flight attendants include opening doors to allow passengers to alight, cleaning the cabin, and reporting any equipment malfunction to the crewmembers. At the end of all these activities, the flight attendants are fatigued and need adequate rest before the next flight.

Most operators require flight attendants to accomplish multiple tasks under a tight schedule. Most often, the tasks are physically demanding allowing less time for rest. In addition, most of these tasks are emotionally challenging, as operators require these attendants to respond to the concerns of their passenger(s) and be constantly available to provide help and support whenever need be (Suvanto, & Ilmarinen, 1987, p. 645). In other words, the requirement for availability to all passengers during flights is a major cause of fatigue for flight attendants. However, more importantly, the added responsibility of ensuring the security and safety of passengers and responding to emergencies is a major stressor to flight attendants. Such situations challenge their skills, training, and abilities. The effects of such stressors include fatigue and interrupted sleep patterns, which have great impacts on their performance.

Previously, the number of flight attendants on duty used to be high, but recent changes including flight attendants’ contractual reduction in the 1990s, have led to increased workload of flight attendants, thus causing fatigue. Factors such as sex and age difference as well as personal responsibilities such as family affect the performance of the flight attendants. The conditions of the cabin such as noise, congestion, dehydration, and air quality can also be a major cause of fatigue. Additionally, following the terrorist security scare, flight attendants’ responsibilities, and workload has increased. Before the 9/11 terrorist attack, the major complaint handled by the flight attendants was passenger disruption (Corey et al., 2002, p. 343). Such disruptions often resulted in the involvement of one crew member in resolving the situation. However, post 9/11 regulations require crewmembers to remain in the cockpit during flights. As a result, flight attendants have the exclusive responsibility of dealing with problematic travelers without any help from the crewmembers.

About security, “flight attendants undertake closer inspection of passengers before boarding the aircraft, remain vigilant during flights, observe passengers during flights for unusual behaviors, and check the cabin after each leg” (Corey et al., 2002, p. 356). Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the passengers show much concern for their security. The flight attendants offer information and support to these passengers, which seem to present an additional workload to them. All these increased responsibilities contribute to the fatigue of the attendants during flights.

Pilot and Flight attendants Fatigue Risk Factors

Long flight periods with reduced time of rest cause fatigue to both the pilot and flight attendants, which makes the crewmembers vulnerable to an error during flights (Stokes, & Kite, 1994, p. 112). Fatigue affects pilots’ and flight attendants’ performance in various ways, thereby exposing the passengers to higher risks of an accident during flight or landing. Fatigue reduces the level of alertness and awareness of the pilot; this makes them more prone to error. In addition, fatigue affects the ability of the pilot to multi-task during flights. This may lead to a loss of situational awareness; the pilot becomes preoccupied with one task while neglecting the other tasks. Fatigue also contributes to feelings of carelessness and indifference, which lowers the performance of the pilot during flights.

Fatigue in pilots affects communication and coordination between the crewmembers. It leads to reduced communication among the flight staff, which affects coordination in the performance of tasks during flights. The reduced communication affects the crew’s ability to carry out duties effectively. In addition, the reduced communication impairs the crew’s ability to recognize danger and take appropriate preventive measures. Fatigued crewmembers, particularly pilots, often face difficulties in synthesizing important information and making accurate decisions during flight. Fatigue reduces the visual perception, affects bodily coordination and physical activity of the flight attendants

Fatigue Management in Aviation Personnel

In general, fatigue management encompasses the identification of the fatigue risk factors and the formulation of strategies to control them. The FAA fatigue management strategies in the aviation industry have traditionally involved duty/rest periods of the flight personnel. However, due to the increasing number of fatigue cases reported by the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), the duty/rest-hour criterion seems insufficient in fatigue management. This suggests that effective management of fatigue requires more than duty/rest time regulations. It requires a multi-level approach including the involvement of operators, the regulator, and the cabin crewmembers.

The regulator, FAA, is responsible for the implementation of fatigue management regulations while the operators play the role of allocating workload and schedules to crewmembers. The crewmembers, on the other hand, have the responsibility of ensuring optimum rest during rest periods before the next scheduled flight. They also have the responsibility of implementing fatigue countermeasures at a personal level, thus, raising awareness on the causes and dangers of fatigue to the aviation employees. Therefore, the provision of effective countermeasures is critical in fatigue management.

One key way of addressing fatigue is through educational programs to employees on the causes and dangers of fatigue and the importance of adequate rest/sleep before flights (Caldwell, 1997, p. 639). In essence, the crewmembers and officials that design flight schedules should understand the sleep cycles and circadian rhythms as important factors in fatigue management. Given the increasing number of fatigue-related incidents/accidents, it seems that a countermeasure training program on fatigue management is necessary.

Training on fatigue management should involve topics such as circadian rhythm and its significance, sleep, work hours, substance use e.g. alcohol or coffee, and the importance of good nutrition. Additionally, fatigue management educational programs should include workload and stress management topics. There are many benefits of fatigue management to both the employees and the operator. Individual benefits include an improved level of alertness, refreshed knowledge on countermeasure strategies, and improved psychological and physiological wellbeing. To the operator, a fatigue training program would have multiple benefits such as reduced absenteeism, higher morale, less fatigue in employees, improved safety, and a decline in accidents/incidences and injuries.


Fatigue in pilots is a common problem affecting the security of flights in the aviation industry for fatigue will ultimately affect the work output and service delivery of the involved employee. Furthermore, stress among flight attendants is an issue of serious concern because, in most cases, fatigued people become stressed as they struggle to balance rest and work. While various regulations by the FAA address fatigue in pilots, it is evident that the current rules do not sufficiently address the issue of fatigue among crewmembers. To address fatigue effectively, it is essential that in addition to the duty/rest-hour criterion, the operators should come up with well-developed countermeasure training on fatigue management. Training on a variety of topics such as sleep, circadian rhythm, stress management, and substance use provides many benefits to the crew and the operator. Additionally, the integration of fatigue training with fatigue risk factors can be an effective strategy in fatigue management.

Many factors contribute to increased incidences of fatigue among the crewmembers some of which include increased workload, work environment, and insufficient rest periods. However, lack of enough information regarding the importance of rest/sleep, circadian rhythm, and improper scheduling of flights cause fatigue among crewmembers. Fatigue among flight attendants has the most significant effects on the security and safety of the passengers during flights. However, by implementing countermeasures through training programs and allowing sufficient rest periods for crewmembers, the operator can enhance their wellbeing as well as their physical activity, thus resulting in improved security and safety of passengers during flights.


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