Don’t Disturb! (Please?)

I hate parties. Particularly if I’m not one of the revelers and desperately trying to sleep.

This is the dilemma of the line pilot (and their long-suffering families). Non flyers find it hard to understand the anti-social behaviour that we tend to exhibit at times – aren’t aircrew supposed to be serious party animals? Trying to arrange a dinner with friends becomes a challenge; finding an evening where you’re free without an early sign-on or a late sign-off is the quest for the holy grail.

I do recall that many years ago we would have a reasonable amount of free time during night stops, which would allow for some socialising. But the nature of airline ops have completely changed, especially for short haul crews.

Captain Sully Sullenberger (Miracle on the Hudson) describes the new short haul crews as the “slam and click” generation – get to the hotel room, slam the door and click the lock. Believe me, the last thing I need when I finally get to my hotel room at 01h00 in the morning (we do have pairings which land after midnight), is not being able to sleep.

Tired Pilot

Unfortunately, life goes on and your body clock does not allow for the wild variations in airline rosters – so getting to sleep at 02H00 does not mean that you won’t wake up early. After all, normal people wake up around six or seven in the morning! And then we sign on early afternoon and fly to almost midnight again.

This is where the revelers come in: Lo and behold, just after your tired body finally succumbed to sleep, some drunken louts will come down the passage, yelling and singing, slamming doors and generally showing their ill breeding.

To add insult to injury, no-one seems to realise that “Do Not Disturb” does not only mean don’t enter.

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Capt. Chris Manno’s take on hotel staff – the same everywhere, I’m afraid!

A few years ago FlightGlobal magazine published the results of a survey of some 2000 aviation professionals. The question was: “List your perceived top threats to aviation safety”. Top of the results list? Fatigue among safety critical crew (pilots, FA’s, engineers, ATC’s, etc.)

Early in September I attended one day of the aviation safety conference in Cape Town, where Jonathan Davy presented a paper on fatigue. He is completing his PhD at Rhodes on fatigue in shift workers – obviously there is much that corresponds with the way air crews work.

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Jonathan Davy at the African Symposium on Human Factors and Aviation Safety.

Bottom line is that we can recognise the symptoms of human fatigue very easily – but for a diurnal species, designed to be awake during daylight and asleep in the dark, finding a cure is proving extremely difficult. The new buzzword for airline unions is FRMS (Fatigue Risk Management System). Whether it will simply remain a buzzword, or whether it will actually result in some tangible results remain to be seen – I must say that I’m rather sceptical.

The challenge is to arrive at a system where the poor human element will be able to keep up with the increasing workload demands of a work-intensive, high-tech, high cost industry with low yields. The bottom line counts and humans are expected to cope.

An airline captain’s priority is the safety of passengers and crew – it will be a sad day when that is compromised by the biggest current threat to aviation safety. Pilots are can-do people and they find it very difficult to call in sick, never mind calling in “fatigued”. So we get on with it and do the job required of us – as safely and efficiently as possible. The surreal early sunrises and expansive city vistas at night make up for the drudgery of 3 o’clock starts and 1 o’clock finishes.

So I do apologise, but please bear with me when I appear somewhat grumpy while you are having a ball at your late night party? And, for the record, I don’t really hate parties!

Evacuate! Evacuate! Are you ready?

“After eighty knots, we’ll be go-orientated. However, in the event of a decision to reject before V1, I will…..”

This is how pilots start the RTO (rejected take-off) briefing before each and every flight. Most hope to never have to execute this in anger, but it is thoroughly trained during every simulator session. (I have had a few actual RTO’s for technical issues, certainly nothing as dramatic as the severe engine damage suffered by the BA Boeing 777 at Las Vegas yesterday).

While the pilots prepare the cockpit, the cabin crew are also going through a thorough briefing, explaining how passengers should act in an emergency. In essence the most frequent fliers you can find thoroughly brief all the potential emergencies every time they fly.

Yet passengers, whose lives could depend on these briefings mostly tend to ignore the instructions. Just look around and you’ll see them,  burying their noses in newspapers, texting, calling, looking important with their laptops and tablets – completely oblivious to the life saving message directed at them.

By ignoring the safety briefing it almost appears as though they want to prove that this is old hat – “I don’t have to pay attention, I fly so much. Look at me, I know all this stuff..”

Yet, when that emergency does happen, these passengers are usually the very people who react incorrectly and potentially endanger the lives of all on board.

The recent BA2276 passenger evacuation once again showed us how little regard passengers have for the instructions which could save lives.

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Bags, trolley cases, you name it – what happened to “leave everything behind”? Why rush? The fact that tons of Jet-A1 could explode seems of no concern.. (Pic: Independent).

Part of the problem is that we have positioned air travel as so safe and so reliable that our passengers are simply not ready or prepared to accept that things could actually go wrong. Once they’re settled on board, their next planned action is to disembark at their destination. Any disruption to that programmed thinking will have a startling effect and result in the improper reactions we’ve once again seen in the Las Vegas incident.

History shows that aircraft fires mostly have catastrophic results – unless the correct procedures are initiated very, very quickly and efficiently.

Pilots and cabin crews are trained to execute these life saving procedures which could effectively ensure a safe outcome. Aviation has learnt from previous disasters.

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British Airtours B732, Manchester, August 1985. 55 out of 130 passengers died. (File pic).

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Air Canada DC9 at Toronto, June 1983. 23 of 44 passengers killed. (Pic: deicinginnovations.com).

Our passengers have not had this intensive training and thus rely on the crew to keep them out of  harm’s way. They clearly do not realise that this is a two-way contract: I’ll do my part, but you need to do yours as well! The first required step is to be courteous enough to pay attention to the safety briefing. Those last minute calls should have been made before boarding; no spreadsheet is so important that it can’t wait until we’re at cruising altitude; that newspaper is not going anywhere.

Regular flyers may think that they’ve heard it all and would know how to react, but experience and research has shown that when an evacuation is ordered passengers tend to head straight for the door where they boarded, not the one closest to them, or even the safe exit pointed out by the crew. In yesterday’s BA 2276 evacuation the over-wing exits were not used (for obvious reasons) – but identifying the hazards and blocking certain exits is all part of cabin crew training.

After his landing in the Hudson river, the majority of passengers told Captain Sullenberger “If only we had listened to the safety briefing!” Most of those passengers ended up without their life jackets or did not know how to put them on.

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Very few passengers have life jackets on. (Pic: Reuters).

Human Factors research has shown that in an emergency situation humans will probably follow their last or most recently rehearsed or executed course of action – if that is not the required action, disaster could follow.

That is why  flight crews brief every phase of flight before they get there – the last rehearsed action. Cabin crew do the same: Before every departure or landing they go through their Silent Review, rehearsing in their mind’s eye their actions in an emergency.

When passengers pause for a moment to consider their behaviour on board, they should bear in mind that cabin crew are safety officers who are responsible for passengers’ safety. While time allows they can serve coffee or tea, but that is not their primary function.

That primary function is to ensure that all on board stay alive – even should it require screaming and shouting at passengers to shake them out of their momentary confusion, shock and disorientation in an emergency evacuation.

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American Airlines Captain Chris Manno’s take on irrational passenger behaviour.

Here is some practical advice to passengers:
Firstly – have the good manners to pay attention to the safety briefing.
Secondly – have your important ID documents on your person.
Finally – leave everything else behind when ordered to evacuate – those things can be replaced, your life cannot.

Crew members should remember why we are there: To safely and comfortably transport passengers to where they want to be. Should delays or emergencies make that impossible, the crew’s duty is to ensure that everyone survives with minimum injury or discomfort.

And don’t worry, someone else will post the pictures on the internet even before the emergency vehicles get there – so you’ll get to see it later!