Industry insiders linked their overwork to a lack of adequate pilots and a ban on airmen’s entry to many destination countries at this pandemic time
Airlines and their crew are all stressed and stretched to their limits worldwide and Bangladesh is no exception.
As airlines slowly resume operations, flights are running with minimum crew with no layover for them as airports do not allow entry to airmen. The other crucial factor that has added to the difficulty at this time is that airlines have shed their pilots and cabin crew when the pandemic halted air travel.
A recent letter of Biman pilots to the Biman Bangladesh Airlines shows what kind of stress they are undergoing.
On long hauls – which often includes flights to Africa – pilots have to stay inside the craft for up to 40 hours. An extra set of airmen flies from Dhaka to the destination on the same aircraft and then switches duty on the return flight as the first set takes rest. The crew is not allowed to disembark and have to stay inside the aircraft no matter what.
On shorter hauls, the same set of pilots returns the craft.
Thus, aircrew are burdened with extra duty load as they are having to operate flights without layover.
Fewer number of pilots and a ban on airmen's entry to many destination countries at this pandemic time is stretching the pilots endurance limit too, industry insiders say.
Sharing his experience with The Business Standard while not willing to reveal his identity, a pilot flying international routes of a local carrier said, "If an aircrew operates a flight for 10 hours on a Dhaka-London route and returns with it without layover, can you imagine how exhausted they get?"
Airlines are using fewer pilots in flights as they trimmed their costs by laying off many pilots at this time of the pandemic, he added.
Moreover, airlines have also increased duty hours, violating the Air Navigation Order (ANO) duty limit, resulting in extreme work pressure on the existing aircrew which can lead to accidents, he expressed his concern.
The airline operators resorted to massive job and salary cuts as Covid-19 hit the aviation industry the hardest, industry insiders said adding that as a result they are operating flights with fewer number of pilots.
At the end of March, some airlines, including Biman Bangladesh Airlines, sought a waiver on the duty-hour limit rule for pilots from the Civil Aviation Authority Bangladesh (CAAB), considering the pandemic situation.
The usual duty hours for pilots is 14 hours and the CAAB set a maximum duty-hour limit at 24 hours, considering the emergency situation with flight crew not being allowed to stay in many countries amid the coronavirus outbreak. The waiver will expire on September 17.
The waiver on the duty-hour limit allowed airlines to operate flights without layover of pilots.
A team of flight crew normally operates an aircraft and gets off in the destination country and another set flies back the aircraft.
The Bangladesh Airlines Pilots' Association (BAPA) has recently expressed concern over the possibility of accidents from crew fatigue caused by extra duty hours and the use of a smaller number of pilots in a flight.
A letter, signed by Syed Nazmul Hasan, general secretary of BAPA, sent to Biman recently, said only chartered and cargo flights were supposed to operate under extended flight duty time, considering the pandemic situation when regular flight operations were suspended.
But Biman resumed regular flight operations to London, Abud Dhabi and Dubai. All scheduled flights are being operated with a minimum number of flight crew as per the ANO limit and without layover.
"We have seen manipulation of flights and block times to remain within the ANO limit, which is unprecedented," said the letter.
Duty time is clearly stated in the company policy but the scheduling department is not complying with it, the letter said.
Compliance is now being broken every now and then, it added.
When asked about extended duty hours of pilots, Captain ABM Ismail, director (Flight Operations) at Biman, explained that a flight can be delayed for many reasons and there is a provision of extending duty time in such a case.
During this crisis period, duty time for pilots has been extended all over the world and Biman is operating flights according to the CAAB rules, he said.
When contacted, Zia-ul Kabir, member of Flight Standard and Regulations Department of CAAB, said duty time for pilots was extended considering the pandemic situation so that the country's aviation industry can survive. This has happened all over the world.
The duty time was extended after proper risk assessment with the acknowledgment of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and after September 17, additional duty hours will not be effective, he added.
In the letter, the BAPA said shuttle operations and flying with a small number of crew have a significant impact on flight safety.
Moreover, such unusual duty is adversely affecting the mental and physical health of the crew members. A single incident due to fatigue-induced errors may have a huge impact on flight safety.
Globally, several accidents have occurred because of pilots' errors since the onset of the pandemic, the letter mentioned.
India and Pakistan experienced fatal plane crashes during the pandemic which is believed to have happened due to pilots' errors.
On May 22, a plane crash that killed 97 people in Pakistan was a result of human errors of the pilot and air traffic control, according to an initial report of the disaster.
On August 8, an Air India Express plane crashed in the South Indian state of Kerala after skidding off the runway and breaking into two while landing at Kozhikode Calicut International Airport.
At least 18 people died in the crash, including both pilots, with up to 30 others receiving treatment for serious injuries.
The plane was one of the repatriation flights operated by the Indian government to bring back nationals stranded abroad due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.