Sounding the alarm on pilot fatigue

Published: 21 Aug 2017

Sounding the alarm on pilot fatigue

With a background in experimental psychology, Claire Coombes works as a human factors scientist for the British Airline Pilots’ Association, researching cognitive issues that influence flightcrew performance.

What sparked your interest in aviation?

According to my parents, our family trips to the aptly named Propeller Inn on the Isle of Wight, where we watched the light aircraft and gliders fly from Bembridge airfield. Many years later, from a professional perspective, my interest has stemmed from the fact that many of the leading insights in human factors research have come from military and commercial aviation.

Tell us about your career to date.

My academic background is in experimental psychology and cognitive science, with particular interest in attention, vision, memory and decision making. Following my Master’s degree, I worked in clinical research for UCLPartners, a centre for innovation in public health. This led to a strong professional focus on the impact of stress and fatigue on individual performance and health in the workplace, especially in safety-critical environments. So I was really delighted when the opportunity arose to work in the flight safety department of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) as a human factors scientist.

What does your job entail?

My primary task is to research cognitive issues that affect pilot performance and safe flight. Over the last three years, the main objective has been to investigate and develop practical guidance on the complex scientific and legislative issues connected with pilot fatigue.

Why is BALPA conducting this research into pilot fatigue?

In every survey BALPA has conducted over the past decade, pilot members have overwhelmingly highlighted fatigue as the most pressing safety concern affecting their daily working lives. The current interaction between the legal, scientific and operational spheres on fatigue matters is causing a great deal of confusion and disagreement within industry. Indeed, the vulnerability
of the new European Flight Time Limitations rule set is that it relies heavily on scientific experts to support its interpretation for different operational concerns.

What has the research found?

Over the last decade, BALPA surveys of UK airline pilots have consistently revealed that 40-45% believe their abilities are compromised by fatigue at least once a month. Self reports of involuntary sleep on the flightdeck are high, with 56% having revealed that they have involuntarily fallen asleep during two-crew operations, and of those that have, 29% have admitted to waking up to find the other pilot asleep. The same surveys show substantial levels of under-reporting of fatigue. Set against these self-reports, a major challenge for the industry is finding practical, scientifically validated ways to measure and predict the fatigue status of pilots ahead of, and during flight. We have focused our efforts into the biomathematical modelling of fatigue risk exposure associated with different types of rosters. We are also testing objective drowsiness equipment, such as glasses that monitor eye blinks.

What are the main challenges with your job?

For many industry-based researchers, there is strong pressure to deliver immediate insights to complex problems. However, this timetable often conflicts with the considerable time inevitably required to conduct rigorous scientific investigations. A second broader challenge is that fatigue is a prominent safety hazard, not just in aviation, but in other transport sectors and society generally. For the scale of the hazard, fatigue scientists are too few in number and they tend to work in isolation. As such, we desperately
need an independent fatigue science advisory panel to be set up.

What do you enjoy most?

I really enjoy the intellectual challenge of dealing with novel problems, finding solutions and communicating this work to ensure pilots and the public understand the issues. However, more importantly, I feel passionate about working on areas of safety that really matter to frontline pilots and the aviation community.

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