Is It Fair To Single Out FlyDubai For Pilot Fatigue Issues?

Over the weekend a FlyDubai Boeing 737 crashed in Russia, killing all 62 passengers and crew onboard. The flight from Dubai encountered bad weather on approach in Rostov-on-Don, causing the plane to circle for a couple of hours (they knew about the bad weather before departing, so had plenty of extra fuel). During the plane’s second approach they apparently lost speed, eventually causing the plane to crash, which was captured in the below footage.

It’s a tragedy which is still being investigated. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad that this seems to be the first major non-terrorism/suicide related crash in a while. Previously a Metrojet plane crashed due to an explosion after takeoff, a Germanwings plane crashed due to a pilot suicide, a Malaysia plane crashed due to being shot down, and a Malaysia plane crashed due to…. well, we still don’t know.

Whatever ends up being the cause of the FlyDubai accident, I think we can safely say it wasn’t terrorism or suicide. Again, I’m not sure if that’s comforting or not, but it at least means that there’s something which can be learned from the incident to prevent it from happening in the future.

A large part of the investigation is centered around the pilots, who were fairly junior at FlyDubai, though not inexperienced. Both the captain and first officer had 5,500-6,000 flight hours. So they weren’t fresh out of school, but they also didn’t have the experience of a 15,000+ hour captain.

flydubai

What makes the story even more tragic is that both the captain and first officer were set to become fathers. It was even the captain’s last trip with FlyDubai, as he was moving back to Cyprus, where he was going to work for Ryanair.

The topic of pilot fatigue is a focal point in the investigation, given that the crash happened in the middle of the night. RT just ran a story about FlyDubai pilots being “worked to death,” including an interview with a former FlyDubai captain. Here’s the RT clip which I’d recommend watching if you have the time, as it’s fascinating:

Interestingly the interview takes place in Doha, which suggests to me that the pilot may now work for a certain other Gulf carrier.

According to this whistleblower (and we don’t know how much of it is true, or if he has an axe to grind with the company):

  • A survey of FlyDubai pilots indicated that over 80% thought there would be a crash at the airline
  • Both pilots didn’t have much seniority, meaning they were getting long, undesirable night flights
  • With the exception of one day off, the first officer was working 11 days in a row, shifting between day and night flights
  • There were meetings every couple of weeks with the chief pilot in which fatigue was brought up, and the chief pilot referred to those bringing up the issue as “prima donnas”
  • Supposedly one of the main reasons the captain was resigning was due to his flying schedule, and that he couldn’t keep up with it anymore

Emirates-A380

The reason I’m writing this post is twofold. First of all, I find the above information about the pilots, and about FlyDubai’s policies, to be interesting.

Second of all, I think the subject of pilot fatigue in general isn’t addressed enough. I’m a bit surprised by the whistleblower here, because pilot fatigue is an issue globally.

It’s an issue even in the US. I’ve witnessed a countless number of crews at US based airlines complain about the timing of their schedules, like a 5AM flight out of New York to Los Angeles being operated by a Los Angeles based crew (where it’s really 2AM PT for them), and a 10PM New York to Los Angeles flight being operated by a New York based crew. Add in the fact that a lot of crew in the US are commuting to work (meaning they live in cities other than the ones they’re flying out of), and that can make for some long and exhausting days. It’s what contributed to the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo back in 2009.

Even though pilots globally generally fly around the same number of hours (typically fewer than 1,000 hours per year), flying in the Middle East is especially tough:

  • There are a ton of flights leaving in the middle of the night; as an Emirates pilot on a recent flight said over the PA “it’s 3AM, which means it’s rush hour here at Dubai International…”
  • We like to think that airline crews have an amazing ability to adjust to different timezones and sleep on demand, but that’s not really the case; they’re only human as well, and I have several friends in Dubai who fly and complain about exhaustion before a 3AM flight
  • FlyDubai crews are probably more fatigued than Emirates crews, given that FlyDubai doesn’t operate any ultra longhaul flights, meaning they’re working more days; Emirates crews work a mix of shorthaul and longhaul flights, which means they’re getting more days off per month

Anyway, my point is that pilot fatigue seems to be a huge issue globally. I’ve heard from pilots at all kinds of airlines that there are consistent complaints filed over fatigue issues. It’s easy to put those issues under a microscope at one airline when a specific incident happens. Last week the people complaining were “prima donnas,” while today they’re probably thanked for bringing up a legitimate complaint. But it sure seems to me like this is something which needs to be addressed industry wide, rather than singling out FlyDubai.

Ideally airlines would start rostering more logically, thinking more about the impact schedules have on the individuals, rather than basing them exclusively on meeting certain metrics. I know that’s aspirational, but as was stated in the interview, just having either mostly night flying or mostly day flying would make things a lot easier; working at 5AM one day and then 10PM the next day and then noon the next day doesn’t allow for proper rest, without a bit of consistency in one’s schedule.

Do you think FlyDubai has been especially egregious with ignoring pilot fatigue issues, or is it an industrywide problem?

Comments

  1. At what point, after – or while – circling for two hours, do you decide to divert somewhere else? I assume they weren’t circling in smooth air, given the winds and weather. But even if they were, at some point, isn’t it wise to land somewhere else? Or turn around? Or is your point that they were too fatigued to make smart decisions at that point?

    You can’t have it all folks. If you want dirt cheap plane tickets, then corners will be cut. Less rest between flights. Less senior crew. And on and on.

    Yes, it’s a horrible tragedy that they all lost their lives, but after circling in bouncy air for two hours, I’d not whine about landing somewhere else for a few hours.

    I recall an LGA-ORD trip last summer, in bad thunderstorms. We taxied so long and had to fly so far north to avoid the storms that by the time we made the left turn to ORD, we had to land in PIT to gas up. Yes, it was annoying to get to ORD late. But I never complained because somehow the pilots found mostly smooth air the whole way, and did what was safe for the conditions. Sorry to be harsh, but that diversion was way better than being dead.

  2. Yes. When someone brings up a safety issue, and the guy in charge dismisses him as a “prima donna,” that’s the biggest red flag I can imagine.

    Adding this to the list of carriers I’ll never fly…

  3. On my very first flight as a captain, we had to divert so far around storms during a transcon that we ended up stopping in Denver for fuel. It was a quick turn-around but I expected heat from some pax once we got to Seattle. Much to my surprise, I actually got several “thanks” from folks for doing the right thing….not that I would have done it differently.

    The good thing about US carriers (whatever you think about cabin service) is that our pilots always put safety first. Unfortunately, standards do vary around the world.

    @Neil S.: We are always watching our fuel, esp in a bad wx situation. If we ever hold for any reason, we have (what we used to call in the navy) “bingo fuel” which is the amount of fuel that we need to use in a divert to fly to an alternate and still have spare. We never plan to arrive somewhere empty.

  4. In my experience it is an industry-wide problem. However, it is probably relatively more of a problem in Asia, including the Middle East, since in elsewhere unions tend to be more prevalent. I hear pilots complaining all the time in the Middle East that “there is no union to protect us”. I’m not a pro union guy when it comes to pilots and other professionals. When I haven’t liked a job for whatever reason, I’ve quit and gotten a new one. However I understand that’s much harder for pilots given the seniority rules.

  5. “I think we can safely say it wasn’t terrorism or suicide. Again, I’m not sure if that’s comforting or not, but it at least means that there’s something which can be learned from the incident to prevent it from happening in the future.”

    You can learn just as much from a terrorist attack. And apply it for future screening.

  6. @Lucky, I really don’t like how you speculate and to some degree jump to conclusions regarding what caused this crash. This is a horrible tragedy, and one should stay away from speculating like this, and rather let investigators investigate on the causes. It’s too early to say what caused this. Pilot fatigue in general though is as always important, but it is way too soon to relate this to this horrible incident in the way you do.

    You also comment that this is the first “non terrorism/suicide related crash in a while”. Recently, an AN26 crashed in Bangladesh, and a CRJ2 crashed in Sweden. Though both being cargo/postal flights, these are still large airplanes.

    @Neil S, there are many factors influencing the decision to divert to another airport. In situations like these, holding is often expected (note: it’s called holding, and not circling. Circling is what you do when you use the instrument approach of another runway before “circling” visually to land on another runway – which obviously is something completely different). Knowing the weather at destination aerodrome though present METARs and TAFs (and often SIGMETs and AIRMETs for the area) one might load on extra fuel for holding, like it seems like they did in this case. There are rules regarding fuel and diverting, and in theory you can hold until you only have fuel enough to go to alternate plus some spare (rules differ, but usually enough for missed approach at alternate + 45 minutes of holding). In case of bad weather at alternate, or if PIC (pilot in command) wants extra buffers, this might be different. There are also rules regulating work time, and these might also come into play in situations like these though that is very unlikely on such a flight like this. I can only assume one would load extra fuel to increase the chance of actually reaching the intended destination. Remember that there are crew and pax at destination, waiting for the return flight. In such cases it usually makes sense to load on extra fuel for holding, as the “cost” of getting pax home for the return flight is very high in the case where the aircraft has to divert.1

  7. @ O. — I specifically made a point of *not* speculating. The only points I made were:
    — “A large part of the investigation is centered around the pilots”
    — “The topic of pilot fatigue is a focal point in the investigation, given that the crash happened in the middle of the night”

    Those are both facts and I’m just reporting what’s being discussed. I’m not saying pilot fatigue was at fault, or that the investigation should be centered around the pilots.

    So please let me know where I’m speculating, because I make a point of not doing that when it comes to crashes.

  8. @Lucky, Indeed you did make those two points. When you write a story where you discuss and to some degree criticize FlyDubai for pilot fatigue issues in an article directly related to the crash is in my opinion speculating about the cause.

  9. “this seems to be the first major non-terrorism/suicide related crash in a while”

    AirAsia Flight 8501 ?

  10. @ O. — But my argument was exactly the opposite. I was talking about the FlyDubai whistleblower, who went public following the crash. My point was to suggest that pilot fatigue is an industry wide problem, and not limited to FlyDubai. The whole point was that while they’re trying to make it look like FlyDubai was ignoring all kinds of warning signs (which may or may not be true), that’s a reality at many airlines, and one which doesn’t make it public until there’s any sort of an accident where that may or may not be a factor.

  11. @O

    Lucky said the first major crash in while. Sorry, but cargo flights or small Ga planes going down is tragic. Yet it’s not a major accident due to the numbers of souls on board.

    And yes there are many factors that can influences if a flight diverts, that includes pressure from management not to divert.

    From another ex-FlyDubai captain over at PPrune.

    Vortex Thing

    Join Date: Jan 2003
    Location: Emirates Living – The Meadows
    Age: 44
    Posts: 358

    Angel Its called commercial pressure
    de facto

    I would have hoped and likely thought that the skipper and FO having had almost two hours to discuss it. Went through actions on seeing the required visual references and actions on one or both being unhappy and if ‘you’ perceive a little quelle surprise in one or other pilots voices it is likely a joint one of , ‘why are we even here in the first place’. Which having flown for 6 hrs and flown two go arounds is not that unreasonable a question!

    In any other airline diverting would a) likely not have been necessary as they likely wouldn’t have dispatched and b) if they had done so would have been patted on the back by the aboves for taking the decision.

    FZ doesn’t work like that. NCC send you ACARS messages saying. DO NO DIVERT, Chief Pilot says continue. NCC will tell you that you will be reported if you don’t hold. NCC tell you that you cannot offload passengers who assault crew or are drunk. NCC of course aren’t legally responsible as you correctly say the crew had the ability to say no. But in reality they had as much ability to say no as people had not to get in the box cars back in the day.

    *******

    Like many things in the Gulf it might look sparkly and nice on the surface, but can be rotten true underneath.

  12. @Red

    You are right, there is also the Air Algérie Flight 5017 in the 100+ souls lost type of crash plus a couple of commuter jet crash’s with 40-50 souls lost.

  13. @Red

    You are right, there is also the Air Algérie Flight 5017 since 2014, plus a couple of commuter aircraft’s.

  14. @ O. “as the “cost” of getting pax home for the return flight is very high in the case where the aircraft has to divert.”

    Higher than the cost of the lawsuits and eventual settlements with the families of the passengers and crew who died on the flight?

    But yeah, thanks for the lecture.

  15. @Neil S. Two *completely* different things there. Loading extra fuel for holding is a normal thing to do when weather is bad at destination, or in other situations where holding might be anticipated. The cost comparison was cost of extra fuel for holding vs. extra costs related to the diversion. My answer was a general answer to your general question.

  16. Here’s another possibility-

    It was known that the weather was stormy at the time. Perhaps the plane encountered a strong downdraft and/or unexpected strong tailwind while on approach. Those conditions have contributed to crashes in the past.

    I can understand how it could happen, as about 10 years ago I was flying to Dulles, and as we approached I could see lightning and towering cumulonimbus clouds in the vicinity of the airport. My first thought was the possibility of downdrafts upon final approach. And that’s exactly what happened – we were perhaps 1000′ above the ground and experienced a very strong and sudden downward motion. It wasn’t exactly like falling from the sky, but it was definitely out of the ordinary and enough to get your attention. The captain immediately applied full power and aborted the approach. We went around and then made a normal landing. Upon exiting the plane, I heard a few people compliment the captain, and he just took it in stride, which made me feel good to know that he (and likely all commercial pilots) are skilled, experienced, and confident in just such a situation.

  17. 10 minutes before Flydubai Flight 981 was cleared for its first attempt to land, S7 Airlines Flight 1159 and Ural Airlines Flight 2758 landed successfully at Rostov-on-Don Airport. 12 minutes after Flydubai Flight 981’s first aborted landing after which it went into a holding pattern, Aeroflot Flight 1166 from Moscow Sheremetyevo made the first of three unsuccessful attempts to land at Rostov-on-Don Airport within the next 35 minutes before diverting to the nearby Krasnodar Airport, landing successfully there.

    Rostov-on-Don is NOT the easiest airport to land at on an ordinary day. Pilots are advised on their charts when landing at Rostov-on-Don Airport to expect severe turbulence and possible windshear in the final moments before touchdown.

    After the first attempt was aborted, the pilot flew in a holding pattern over Rostov-on-Don Airport, having circled the Rostov-on-Don Airport 10 times before attempting to land for a second time, since landings in non-designated airports are usually not welcomed by the airline management. Holding for 2 hours is ridiculous, if Flydubai policy was dictating that then I’ll never fly with Flydubai. Flydubai should have diverted after maximum 30 mins holding. The pilot could have been tired after circling over Rostov-on-Don Airport for several hours after midnight.

    The pilot has flown at least three different circles trying to reorient to the runway – possibly due to”disorientation”.

    According to ATC communications published online, before the Flydubai Flight 981 was established on the localiser- the instrument which indicates the center line of the runway when pilot is landing using instruments rather than visually, pilot reported to ATC that in case he would need to make another go-around, he would climb to flight level 80 (2,400 m).

    The pilot then reported that he was established on the localiser and continued his descent. At 5.5 km before the runway threshold, when the Flydubai Flight 981 was at 450 m, it started climbing again. ATC records appeared to show that Flydubai Flight 981was going around moments before it crashed. The pilot reported his intention to abort the landing with “Going around, Skydubai 981”. ATC advised Flydubai Flight 981 to switch to another air traffic controller (“Skydubai 981, contact Rostov Radar on 121.2”). Flydubai Flight 981 acknowledged this with “121.2, bye-bye”, which was its final transmission.

    After aborting its second approach, at an altitude of 1,230 m, Flydubai Flight 981 began a rapid descent with a vertical speed reaching more than 105 m/s and crashed and completely disintegrated about 250m short of the runway. The ball of ignited kerosine confirmed that the Flydubai Flight 981 did NOT run out fuel.

    Changing the “pilot flying” (PF) and “pilot monitoring” (PM) roles after the first missed approach has the advantage of the second approach being conducted by a “fresh” set of hands and mitigates the effect of the tunnel vision that often occurs after failed to land at the first attempt.

    Raw data from FR24 shows the aircraft going from a 20 m/s climb to roughly a 30m/s dive within about 5 seconds. Vertical speed of over 100 m/s. If the site data is actually correct, the climb rate seems a little bit high. The pilots completely lost control during the go around and for some reason could NOT not arrest a very-steep descent.

    A Boeing 737-800 “pilot flying” (PF) could inadvertently apply pressure to the control column, trip the auto flight system into CWS (Control Wheel Steering), without noticing and the pilot’s continued pressure on the stick could result in >20 degree dive.

    A manually flown go-around in night / Instrument meteorological conditions and light weight can produce an inner ear acceleration illusion known as somatogravic/vestibular illusion. Longitudinal acceleration can be falsely sensed by a pilot as an extreme pitch-up. The sensation can be overwhelming and cause a pilot to ignore other sensory inputs, forcing the aircraft into a dive. This was a cause factor in
    the Gulf Air Flight 072 – Airbus A320 accident in Bahrain almost 16 years ago,
    the Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771-Airbus A330 crash in Tripoli almost 6 years ago and
    the Tatarstan Airlines Flight 363-Boeing 737-500 crash in Kazan 2 years ago.

    Similarly several US military jets were also lost during the early days of jet aircraft catapult launches from US aircraft carriers. Since instinct to push during the acceleration is uncontrollable, it is very important to have the right hand OFF the “joy-stick” during the launch. More than 12,000 US Navy aircraft were lost including the aircraft lost in combat, but most of them were lost in just attempting to take off and land on an aircraft carrier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *