Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
“We are all fatigued.” So said a leader this week. Not a Ukrainian general nor a British prime minister, but the chief executive of Wizz Air.
You can see his point: after two years of hibernation during the worst of the pandemic travel restrictions, aviation is expected to rise and shine – even though many great people have fled the industry for less stressful work, more sociable hours and better pay. The overstretch is revealed in the hundreds of late-notice cancellations during the past week – most of them on easyJet, but a few of them on Wizz Air.
“We cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness because the person is fatigued,” the Wizz Air boss continued. “The damage is huge when we are cancelling a flight. It’s huge. It’s reputational damage of the brand and it is the other financial damage, the transactional damage because we have to pay compensation for that.”
As discussed in my latest podcast episode, the scale of the potential payout is huge. Suppose a fully booked Wizz Air Airbus A321 flight to and from the Canary Islands is cancelled, and everyone with a ticket for the outbound and return leg claims the £350 due to them, the bill is a staggering £164,500.
With costs for hotel rooms and alternative flights for stranded passengers added, a single cancellation of a round-trip could top a quarter-million pounds.
The point at which the aviation community went into uproar was when Mr Varadi said: “Sometimes it is required to go the extra mile.”
UK law says: “A crew member shall not fly, and an operator shall not require him to fly, if either has reason to believe that he is suffering, or is likely to suffer while flying, from such fatigue as may endanger the safety of the aircraft or of its occupants.”
Was the airline boss suggesting pilots and cabin crew report for work and take to the skies even when they are excessively tired?
Absolutely not, a spokesperson for Wizz Air told me. “Safety is, and always will be, our first priority. We have a robust and responsible crew management system that meets the needs of our people and enables us to serve as many customers as possible in the current challenging environment.”
I asked Martin Chalk, former British Airways pilot and now general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), about the Wizz Air Chief executive’s comments.
“Fatigue is not dissimilar to alcohol in the way in which it acts. No one supports pilots having alcohol – why would you support something that has the same effect?
“We are calling on him to make clear that he doesn’t mean that pilots and cabin crew should report when they are fatigued.
“He should swiftly say that he supports pilots standing themselves down.”
UK aviation is almost unbelievably safe; the last crash involving a British aircraft with loss of life was in 1989 – the Kegworth disaster.
The skies have stayed safe thanks to obsessive respect for safety and a comprehensive set of regulations with, rightly, the pilot’s judgment at their heart.
These difficult days, of course everyone wants to get passengers where they need to be and allow the airlines to return to something resembling profitability. But the higher the stress, the greater the need to rest properly.
A leading European aviation safety expert, who did not want to be named, told me: “Whilst work and rest times are measured in hours, the actual level of fatigue is really dependent on what you are doing.
“The stress and uncertainty of some of the chaos that we are seeing is conducive to staff getting more tired sooner. Therein lies the challenge.”
As a passenger, you are probably tired of waiting. But it’s safer than the alternative.
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