Pilots for Southwest Airlines are asking the management to address pilot fatigue, labelling it the “number-one safety threat.”

Open letter to airline management

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) has sent an open letter to CEO Robert Jordan concerning the rise in pilot fatigue in the past year. Since the airline resumed normal operations last June, reports of fatigue have seen huge spikes, causing pilots to turn downshifts. The union, which has over 10,000 members, stated:

“Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines’ number-one safety threat,”

SWAPA logo Southwest airlines union
The union boasts over 10,000 members | © SWAPA

SWAPA has said the dramatic increase in safety reports comes as a “direct result of operational mismanagement by the company”, adding:

“Our primary job as Pilots is identifying and capturing errors in order to break the error chain, but our ability to do so is compromised when we are fatigued. SWAPA Pilots are tasked with, and pride themselves on, making safety their highest priority,”

Fatigue reports have increased

In their letter, SWAPA says that pilot fatigue levels were up 350% during August and September 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. This rose to 600% in October, though Southwest say they have seen a steady decline in fatigue reports since November when they altered their schedule to reduce the burden on staff.

Southwest Airlines at Miami International, SWAPA pilot fatigue
A Southwest Airlines altered their flying schedule in November to address fatigue | © miami-airport.com

However, SWAPA says that levels remain high in 2022, with March reports still 350% higher than 2019 levels. In response, the airline said:

“The March increase in pilot fatigue calls is a result of the system working as designed, allowing the crew to determine if they are too fatigued to fly,”

Adding:

“Systems are in place that does not allow us to schedule crew without their required 10 hours of rest. If there are instances where pilots were unable to obtain eight hours of sleep within that 10-hour window, we will review those circumstances and respond.”

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that pilots get a minimum of 10 hours of rest between shifts, which should include eight hours of sleep. Southwest claims adherence to these guidelines but acknowledges that pilot fatigue calls have increased during times of “irregular operations” such as March of this year.

Are airlines to blame?

Airlines have had a tough time of it in the last two years, having to deal with unpredictable fluctuations in demand as countries change their travel restrictions. This month especially, airports and carriers have been facing a nightmare situation. Airlines reduced their staff drastically during the pandemic, and now passengers are returning faster than they can hire enough crew to serve them. This is putting a severe strain on airline crew and pilots, who are being asked to fill shifts wherever they can.

Pilot unions for other US airlines such as Delta and American have raised similar concerns about working conditions. In Australia, Qantas has made desperate pleas for unrostered pilots to cover for last-minute pilot drop-outs. Sydney Airport is facing an operational meltdown as passengers return at 80% of their pre-Covid numbers to an airport with close to half of its regular staff. In the UK,  EasyJet and British Airways have also struggled, with British Airways so desperate for the team that they’re offering a £1000 starting bonus for any new cabin crew that enrol.

What are your thoughts on pilot fatigue issues? Let us know in the comments below!

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