Fatigued pilots flying on fumes

The transport minister downplays concerns of pilot survey finding that majority of pilots are concerned about flying while fatigued

The vast majority of Danish pilots are flying while exhausted, a survey by the DR news programme 21 Søndag and the pilots' union, Dansk Pilotforening, has revealed.

Of the almost 600 pilots who answered the survey, six out of ten have said they have fallen asleep while flying, while a resounding eight out of ten have flown while being so tired that they felt that they shouldn’t have been in the cockpit.

Kåre Lohse, a pilot who works for a major Asian airline and who has flown in Europe and Asia over the past 15 years, said exhaustion among pilots jeopardises air safety.

“The planes can’t fly themselves yet, and decisions need to be made. When something unexpected happens it is important that the pilots are fresh and alert,” Lohse told DR News. “Sometimes I’ve questioned whether I should be flying but when you’re sitting there, there is not much to do about it.”

The survey also showed that nine out of ten pilots have experienced their co-pilot falling asleep during a flight without prior agreement.

Exhaustion accounts for up to 20 percent of all airplane accidents and Lars Bjørking, the head of Dansk Pilotforening, said that tired pilots are a serious issue.

“It is worrying that the pilots have reached such high exhaustion levels and it is essential that the levels are controlled,” Bjørking told 21 Søndag. “We no longer have unstable engines or poorly designed airplanes, so the weak link is tired pilots. This is something that we must, and can, sort out.”

But despite the startling findings, the transport minister, Henrik Dam Kristensen (Socialdemokraterne), downplayed the survey's findings.

“The authority which controls exhaustion amongst pilots cannot recognise that picture. The pilots have a responsibility to speak up if they feel that they are in no condition to fly. That's an important aspect of flight safety,” Kristensen told 21 Søndag.

The Danish airline association, Dansk Luftfart, underscored that the nation's airlines have a good safety record, but said it would meet with the pilots in the coming days to discuss their concerns.