Unsustainable Instability!


3 days were planned; 1 night flight followed by 2 standbys, before the following unravelled;

Day 1: 

South Coast of England – Beachy Head – As we depart to Spain

Rostered an evening flight to Spain & back, so had to be at the airport for 6pm, aiming to get back around 01:40 the next morning.

I know this is going to be a big shock to my early rising body clock, but heck, it’s one night. 

As I get to work, I can see they’ve changed my standby the following day to an 11 hour duty, flying down to Greece & back, along with changing my third day to a 9 hour flying day down to Malta & back. 

They’ve given me minimum legal rest* between all 3 duties, so now any plans I had for the next 3 days are wiped out, a bit like my body and brain will be!

The return Spanish flight ends up being delayed by almost an hour due to the aircraft being late from it’s previous flight. We do what we can to make up the time in the air, but the turnarounds are so tight that it’s to no avail. This then leaves me ‘out of hours’ for the Greek flight the following day. Instead of changing me off the Greek flight, which would previously be common practice, they’ve kept me on the flight, with the departure time the same, but have reduced my report time** to still allow me exactly 12 hours ‘rest’ to the minute.

Our rule book stipulates the company do not have the authority to do this, only the commander does. So I call them at 03:00am when I arrive home, just before going to bed, to let them know that nugget of information which they should already be privy to. “Leave it with us” gives me the impression they’ll do the right thing here and take me off the 11 hour duty, so I then settle in for a restless 3 hours sleep before my body’s natural clock wakes me up at 06:00. I try to return to sleep but it doesn’t work.

Day 2

Upon waking and checking my roster – it appears that instead of taking me off the flight and putting me on something later or shorter, they’ve now delayed the entire Greek flight, to allow me to have the full 60 minutes report time. This means I’ll now have 200 passengers sat at the gate when I rock up, along with 5 other crew members who would have all been sat there from the original report time, waiting for me. 

I give the company crewing department a phone-call to get some clarity over what’s going on and they confirm the above. I point out to them that by delaying that flight, I’m once again legally out of hours for the Malta on the following day, so ask if they could put me on something else….preferably shorter, or back to my standby to allow me some more rest after today. They said they’ll see what they can do…

A few minutes later I get a notification that they’ve now changed that Malta to a much longer 11 hour duty day, down to Greece again, and you guessed it…on minimum rest! 🙂

Another call back to ask them if they’re serious, and I get met with the response that ‘it’s all legal, just not ideal’. I can only really laugh at the situation, but sternly inform them that it’s highly unlikely I’ll be fit to fly for the Greek flight on day 3.

When I rock up to the gate for todays Greek flight, as expected, all passengers and crew are there. I’m told we have a ‘slot’ for 2 hours time due to French ATC strikes, and that operations have also mixed up the aircrafts schedule which means the aircraft we’re on still isn’t landing from it’s previous flight for another 30 minutes, despite us originally meant to be nearly airborne by now. It feels highly unprofessional as a Captain, turning up to the gate 30 minutes after passengers and the rest of the crew, but is breaking the law and cutting my rest short even more unprofessional?

Once on board, despite feeling absolutely shattered from my 3 hours of sleep, I do my best to remain upbeat and try to make the delay as positive as possible for our passengers. We open up the flightdeck for visitors whilst we wait out the time on the ground – it’s nice to see some smiles and make a few peoples day a little bit better!

After a very long stint in the air down to Greek, and returning back 2 hours late, I once again get notified of changes to my roster for the following day. Now looking at my phone at nearly 3am, I see they’ve taken me off my Greek flight the next day due to me now being way too late for it, but instead of allowing me any more rest due to the big delay we’ve taken today (and just completed an 11+ hour day at work), they’ve put my on minimum rest airport standby (I have 12 hours before I need to be back in the airport, sat there waiting for them to decide which flight they wish to put me on).

Day 3

Managing to get a whole 4 hours of sleep this time, I arise at 7am to see that once again my roster has changed….to an afternoon/evening flight. I quickly look at the app our passengers can see to track their flights and see that it’s already displayed as delayed by an hour so far, but I’d still have to report on time none the less. 

After much deliberation, I call work and essentially tell them I’m fatigued, which means too tired to safely operate an airliner that day. I still feel guilty and horrible doing this. It hits my pride hard, and feels like I’m letting people down and not fulfilling my duty (although they will just find another Captain to replace me for that duty)….However, when we get messed around so much and treated like we’re machines who don’t need sleep, I see it as a much safer option to any other alternative. 

Overall my rostered flight/duty day for day 3 alone, changed 6 times in the week preceding it (a few other changes within the above too). This hopefully gives you an idea of the level of instability when working within the airline world and especially short haul operations that are run as “efficiently” as mine. 

There can often be no time for life, plans, exercise, or necessary sleep during working blocks. I think it needs to start heading in the opposite direction, and health & wellness prioritised for flight crew rather than not even being considered.

The above is not sustainable in the long run….it’s barely sustainable in the short run. Unfortunately airlines are chasing profits and efficiency above all else, whilst passengers are seeking the lowest price out there and the consumer mindset means they want to be able to fly anywhere at any time of day or night. 

 * Minimum Rest ; UK law stipulates we need an ABSOLUTE minimum of 12 hours ‘rest’ from when finish one duty, to when we can start out next working day. I say ‘rest’ because if you take off an hour for commuting each way, followed by time to cook, eat, shower, just the basics, you barely have enough time to get anything near an 8 hour sleep

** Report time – This is the time we actually rock upto work. It’s usually 60 minutes before the flights departure, which gives us almost enough time to safely run through our sometimes 60+ page flightplans, meet the crew, brief, set up the aircraft and get ready for push back. 

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