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21 Aug, 2006

Security Hassles Will Worsen “Flight Attendant Fatigue”

Crises in the aviation industry often tend to focus on the impact on passengers and the business side of airlines. Little attention is paid to the impact on those who work in airlines, airports and others who bear the brunt.

Among those getting increasingly concerned about these crises are flight attendants, those whom most passengers think do little more than serve the meals and otherwise enjoy a cushy life as they jet around the world, seeing exotic places.

The impact on them of the increased aviation security measures instituted since 9/11 has been studied in a report called “Flight Attendant Fatigue” compiled by Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, Federal Aviation Administration.

Although released in September 2005, the report has taken on fresh currency in the light of recent security concerns and the high probability that things are only going to get worse. Only the US scenario was studied but the conclusions clearly have universal applicability as human elements.

The report notes that since 9/11, flight attendants have been asked to assume a greater role in protecting the safety of air travellers during flight but that these increased responsibilities could be compromising their rest and sleep requirements.

Says the report, “Current flight attendant duty and rest rules state that flight attendants should have a minimum of nine hours off duty that may be reduced to eight hours, if the following rest period is ten hours.

Although these rules have been in place for several years, they do not reflect the increased security responsibilities since 2001, and only recently have carriers begun scheduling attendants for less than nine hours off.

There is evidence that what was once occasional use of the ‘reduced rest’ flexibility is now becoming common practice at some carriers. Because (US) Federal Aviation Administration regulations allow the rest period to commence shortly after the aircraft parks at the gate, the eight-hour ‘rest’ period also includes the time it takes a flight attendant to get out of the terminal, go through customs if necessary, obtain transportation to a hotel and check in.

“Due to this situation, it is likely that many flight attendants are performing their duties with no more than four to six hours of sleep.”

This report included a literature review on fatigue experienced by flight attendants, an evaluation of the duty schedules, and a comparison of these schedules to the current regulations. Three different performance and fatigue models were carried out to provide an idea of how flight attendant duty schedules contribute to increased levels of fatigue and predicted changes in performance.

The report concluded that getting less than the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep each night can result in reduced performance such as “vigilance degradations, increased lapses of attention, cognitive slowing, short term memory failures, slowed physical and mental reaction time, rapid and involuntary sleep onsets, decreased cognitive performance, increased subjective sleepiness, and polysomnographic evidence of increased sleep pressure.

Cumulative sleep loss night after night can lead to cumulative and progressive performance decrements, even in healthy adults, it said.

Fatigue during international flights is due mainly to flight duration and time zone differences, while fatigue on domestic flights is related to total working hours, landing frequency (number of legs), workload, and layover duration.”

The increased perceived stress among flight attendants is “similar to those experienced by pilots although flight attendants duties are varied and include more physical activity, working in a noisy environment, with higher social involvement.”

The report noted that “rest period” is not the same as sleep hours, since it includes the time required to travel to and from the airport, time for meals, personal hygiene, and time to relax and go to sleep.

There is a “difference between the scheduled work/rest periods and the actual work/rest periods as they play out in field operations. Aircraft-related and weather delays as well as other unforeseen operational events contribute to extending a duty period beyond what was originally scheduled,” the report said

The report analysed 17 flight attendant fatigue-related incidents in which flight attendants reported that “fatigue had affected completion of critical tasks and expressed a lack of confidence in their ability to handle unusual situations and/or perform adequate security duties.”

It noted the individual’s ability to tolerate fatigue is also affected by the number of segments flown, daytime versus night-time flights, flights that are uni-meridianal vs. those that are transmeridianal, regional versus domestic flights.

To address the fatigue issue, the report said, “regulations must be combined with sound and realistic operational practices, and supplemented, as needed, by personal strategies. Air travel will always require flexibility in operations in order to adjust to unusual and/or non-routine circumstances.”

It added, “From the standpoint of flight attendant fitness and well-being, consideration needs to be given to the establishment of work/rest practices that take into account the occurrence of unusual circumstances.”

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