Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Let sleeping pilots lie – you're more at risk on the motorway
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The Independent Online

You know the drill, and its inevitable futility. Much of the safety briefing before every flight defines the word "pointless". If you have travelled in a car some time in the past 30 years, the chances are you may already know how to fasten and unfasten a seatbelt.

You, like me, may wonder exactly how many airline passengers' lives have been saved over the decades by the inflatable lifejackets that the long-suffering cabin crew are obliged to model in the aisles. The most ridiculous bit of the safety briefing is right at the end: "... and here's a whistle to attract attention". If you survive the aircraft's plunge into the icy ocean, remember to secure the life jacket with a double bow and inflate it only after you leave the aircraft (and, ladies, remove high heels). This scenario suggests you will be greeted by a rescue party bobbing around, patiently waiting to serve up beef tea and ship's biscuits as soon as they've plucked you from the Atlantic after hearing the whistle's shrill call.

Following a BBC investigation this week into pilot fatigue, an extra line must surely be added to the safety briefing: "Do not use the whistle on board, in case you wake the pilots."

In a survey of 534 members of the British Air Line Pilots' Association (Balpa), four out of five said they had suffered from chronic fatigue, with three in four reporting that tiredness had adversely affected their response times.

"I have fallen asleep unintentionally in the air where you close your eyes for a second and realise that 10 minutes have passed," one anonymous pilot told the BBC. That sort of trick could usefully be passed on to passengers, but is disconcerting when practised by pilots.

Like the 40,000 other passengers who fly to, from or within Britain on the average day, I expect both the pilots on my plane, and those in command of other aircraft, to be fully in control. One reason flying has an unmatched safety record is the way that "human factors" in crashes have been designed out – but if both pilots doze off then anything could happen. The most worrying incident was where a first officer fell asleep as the captain was "resting". Their aircraft (belonging, we are told, to a low-cost, short-haul airline, but not which one) began to turn into the path of another plane, until they were woken up by air traffic control – now there's a high-class alarm call. More alarmingly, the incident was never officially reported. Automatic pilot was not invented so that the men and women on the flight deck could sleep their way across Europe.

When a pilot reports for duty, he or she is assumed to be in full control of their faculties. If they are not, then it is their sole responsibility to declare themselves unfit to work. Airlines uniformly say that they would take no action against any pilot saying that they were too tired to work. According to the Balpa survey, one in three said that they would refuse to fly but would fear disciplinary action. A further one in eight said that they would not declare their fatigue out of fear for their job. They say that they are obliged to be more productive than ever, flying up to six sectors a day.

Assuming your response time has not been affected by over-work, how do you respond to the survey? Perhaps you do it by placing your faith in the systems that are designed to keep us safe.

Looking at the magnificent safety record of UK and Irish airlines, you may dispute the view of the Balpa chairman, Mervyn Granshaw, that fatigue is "the single biggest issue facing aviation".

A junior house doctor at the end of a 19-hour-shift, who works in an industry that also deals in matters of life and death, will look enviously at the limit on pilots' hours, which permits only 900 duty hours a year – corresponding to less than two-and-a-half hours a day.

Now, most people work around 200 days annually (except those of us with the absurd good fortune to be on holiday 365 days a year – 366 next year – and who wouldn't know chronic fatigue if we tripped over it in a darkened youth hostel dorm). So the pilots' average rises to four-and-a-half hours a day. That is the time actually on the flight deck.

Bear in mind that when you have woken, dressed, packed, got to the airport, had the size of your toothpaste tube and shampoo bottle measured and found the right gate, you can relax (unless you are fretting about how drowsy the flight crew are feeling today). But if you think life as an airline passenger is tough, try being a pilot: their work is just beginning.

Short-haul flying around the most congested skies in the world, over north-west Europe, is as stressful as aviation gets. Yet the rewards are commensurat, with salaries averaging £100,000 a year (or £110 for each hour actually flying) and plenty of days off. A couple of pilots of my acquaintance manage to run successful businesses in their spare time.

The survey has certainly highlighted issues of concern – but, frankly, you are far more at risk from the effects of operator fatigue on the motorway on the way to the airport than from the pilots in the cockpit dropping off.

A cynical old passenger might conclude that the main purpose of the pilots' union survey is to reduce crews' workloads. Who pays? We do, in the form of higher fares, paying pilots to spend more time with their golf clubs.

Unequal partners

"Merger", in the sense of an amalgamation of equals, is a much-abused term in travel. Twenty years ago, British Caledonian staff were told that their airline had merged with British Airways. Quicker than you could say "redundancy cheque", it became clear that BCal was being devoured by a mighty BA.

Earlier this month, Thomas Cook "merged" with MyTravel, formerly Airtours. Seven years ago, MyTravel briefly upstaged Thomson as Britain's biggest holiday company in terms of customers. A combination of hubris, a botched re-branding and shocking adding-up by the bean-counters brought MyTravel to the brink of failure. The firm recovered, but as the mainstream package holiday business shrinks it has "merged" with the much stronger Thomas Cook.

How subordinate is MyTravel? Well, the firm is now known as the Thomas Cook Group, and the MyTravel brand has been erased. MyTravel Airways' planes – some only recently resprayed from the colours of the short-lived MyTravelLite – are getting another paint job, as Thomas Cook Airways.

The integration is intended to save nearly £100m a year. Most of the 2,500-plus job losses will fall on MyTravel's Lancashire-based staff. They survived the Titanic only for their lifeboat to sink.

Only one ray of comfort: the name Airtours is to be preserved and Thomas Cook is finally eradicating the worst marketing mistake of the decade: the name JMC, brought in at a cost of around £200m eight years ago to replace the strongest brand name in travel, Thomas Cook.

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