It is alleged that both captains fell asleep on ITA flight AZ609, which flew from New York to Rome on 1 May.

Air Traffic Control

It’s the early hours of the morning at Marseille air traffic control (ATC), and something has come up. A transatlantic flight flying from New York to Rome is passing over French airspace, and the pilots aren’t responding. Perhaps they’re preoccupied. ATC tries calling them a few more times just in case. Still no reply.

ITA Airways A320 taxiing. @ Styyx
ITA Airways A320 taxiing. @ Styyx

Significant lapses in communication are a cause for concern. What if the plane has been hijacked? Marseille ATC decided to contact the aircraft’s operators, ITA Airways, to see if they could reach the pilots through ACARS, a text-based messaging system. It’s been 10 minutes without communication.

Now things are really getting tense. With the pilots still unresponsive, ATC is forced to elevate the matter, labelling it a potential terrorist threat. At 3:56 am, French military fighter jets are deployed to approach the plane and look into the cockpit. Italian Authorities are warned that it could be a hijacking.

At 4:02, the pilots become responsive, and the situation is de-escalated.

What Happened on ITA Flight AZ609?

So what was going on? There were two pilots on the flight, and at the time of the incident, one was in “controlled rest”. On long-haul flights, one of the pilots is allowed to sleep in the cockpit for 10-40 minutes whilst the other remains awake. On flight AZ609, ITA suspected the captain responsible for operating the plane had also dozed off.

The captain vehemently denied this allegation, claiming there were issues with the plane’s communication systems. However, an inspection of the cockpit found no faults with the equipment, and furthermore, there were alleged inconsistencies in the captain’s story. Consequently, he was sacked by the airline.

Airbus 350 cockpit approach, ITA sleeping pilot story
When cruising, one pilot can nap for 10-40 minutes whilst the other monitors the cockpit | © Airbus Industrie

ITA has not confirmed that the captain was asleep, only saying that he “did not comply with the procedures in force both during the flight and once landed”. They also stress that the passengers were not in danger whilst the two captains were asleep, as the plane remained on autopilot. Nevertheless, it is still a cause for concern. Italian politician Michele Anzaldi commented: “what happened on the ITA flight from New York, where both pilots fell asleep, is very grave”, adding that the state-run airline “has a duty to guarantee that this will never happen again and must apologise to the passengers”

For a deeper dive into sleep issues among pilots, check out our interview with pilot and psychologist Allan Baker.

What are your thoughts on the sleeping pilots incident? Let us know in the comments below!

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