We have all experienced flight delays and waiting around until our aircraft takes off. But for flyers on board IndiGo flight 6E-518 on Sunday, the experience was nothing short of a nightmare.
The flight, which was scheduled to take off from Dehradun to Chennai (with a layover in Lucknow) was supposed to be for four-and-a-half hours. However, at the end of it all – the flight touched down in Chennai after 10 hours and an even saw an unscheduled stop in Delhi.
And all this drama, according to flyers on board, was owing to the fact that the pilot was suffering from a condition called pilot fatigue and refused to operate the aircraft any further.
So, what exactly went down on IndiGo flight 6E-518? More importantly, what is pilot fatigue and how does it affect the aviation sector?
Flight that went on and on, and on
On 2 July, IndiGo had scheduled a flight 6E-518 from Dehradun to Chennai, with a layover in Lucknow. The flight was to take off from Dehdradun’s Jolly Grant Airport at 4.45 pm and land in Lucknow at 5.33 pm.
Here comes the first delay. The flight didn’t take off until 7.22 pm and no information was shared about the deferral. The aircraft, which was expected to land at 5.33 pm, then reached around 9 pm. Now, here is where more trouble brews.
Twitter user Sameer Mohan (@sleepyhead148), whose wife was one of the passengers on board, at 9.47 pm tweeted: “Dear @IndiGo6E, my wife’s on a flight that has been delayed for 3+ hours now and is now been going to Delhi. If this is how you’re gonna treat regulars then god bless. This is not done.”
Amid this, his wife then informed him that the plane was now being rerouted to Delhi, a second layover, as the “Captain is angry” and didn’t want to fly further.
Dear @IndiGo6E my wife’s on a flight that has been delayed for 3+ hours now and is now been going to Delhi. If this is how you’re gonna treat regulars then god bless. This is not done.
— Sameer Mohan (@sleepyhead148) July 2, 2023
As one can see in the Whatsapp chat, the pilot was too tired to fly and wanted a replacement.
Another passenger also shared the horrible experience on Twitter, saying that the plane then went to Delhi and around midnight a new captain and pilot had finally arrived. The date was 3 July now. A new day, but passengers who had taken off from Dehradun hours earlier were still not at their destination.
Finally captain & pilot arrived. New crew. It’s 0000 hrs on July 3rd. Yet 2 take off. Passengers have been struck since 3 PM, its been 9 hours minimum…. Horrible experience. Just giving a cookie & juice doesn’t help. Many like me are diabetic@IndiGo6E @DGCAIndia @timesofindia
— Ketharinath Kamalanathan (@kknath) July 2, 2023
Finally, at 3 am on 3 July, passengers touched down in Chennai after the harrowing incident. IndiGo didn’t offer any official statement, but in response to Mohan’s tweets wrote, “we deeply regret the inconvenience caused due to the unforeseen flight delay”.
The IndiGo nightmare, if passengers are to be believed, was owing to a pilot refusing to fly any more owing to fatigue. The pilot cited FDTL (flight duty time limitation) norms for not flying further, reported Moneycontrol.
And it’s not the only case. On 26 June, 350 passengers on an Air India flight from London to Delhi were stranded in Jaipur for about three hours after their pilot refused to fly citing flight duty time limitations and duty hours.
While some may scoff at the notion, pilot fatigue is real and poses a risk to civil aviation. Simply put, pilot fatigue is when a pilot suffers a general lack of alertness and degradation in mental and physical performance, which can affect his/her alertness, performance, and judgement during a flight.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) defines flight fatigue/pilot fatigue, as a physiological and psychological state of tiredness and weariness experienced by pilots due to prolonged periods of wakefulness and/or insufficient restorative sleep.
Pilot fatigue has been documented as early as 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic Ocean. While taking the historic flight, the aviator had written, “My mind clicks on and off… I try letting one eyelid close at a time while I prop the other open with my will. My whole body argues dully that nothing, nothing life can attain, is quite so desirable as sleep. My mind is losing resolution and control.”
Since then, pilot fatigue has been identified as a crucial factor to ensure safety on board and in 2020, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) identified “state of wellbeing and fitness for duties” as top safety issue for large aeroplanes.
Risks of pilot fatigue
Pilot fatigue is a cause of real concern. It can cause a pilot to make wrong decisions or even fall asleep inside the cockpit, leading to a fatal crash.
A pilot survey conducted by the Safety Matters Foundation in 2022 revealed that 66 per cent of pilots admitted to falling asleep in the cockpit, without informing crew members. It further revealed that half of Indian pilots suffered from severe daytime sleepiness. Additionally, 31 per cent of the pilots in the survey admitted to having a close call because of sleepiness during a flight.
This clearly shows how dangerous pilot fatigue is and the situation is only worsening as more people opt to fly, increasing the number of flights.
The situation is no better in the US where pilots from all carriers filed about 60 reports of mistakes or other incidents involving fatigue to the federal Aviation Safety Reporting System in 2022.
Tackling pilot fatigue
According to aviation safety regulations, a pilot can fly a maximum of 35 hours a week on domestic and 40 hours on international routes. In a month, pilots can fly a maximum of 125 hours on both routes and the yearly limit is 1,000 hours.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, India’s aviation regulator, is tasked with ensuring that these rules are followed and have also formed a fatigue reporting system under which a can report to the safety department of the airline concerned and the report is then sent to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
However, in 2022, the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICPA), which represents around 900 pilots of narrow-body aircraft at Air India, wrote to DGCA urging the regulator to do away with all the current regulations related to fatigue management for flight crew and formulate new norms.
It’s high time that the aviation industry wakes up to pilot fatigue. If not, then incidents such as the Sunday IndiGo drama or even a tragedy such as the crash of Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771 in 2010 in Libya’s Tripoli will continue.
With inputs from agencies