Getting ahead of fatigue: how a regional Canadian airline aims to prevent a hidden threat

Air Georgian operates regional flights on behalf of Air Canada. (photo: Air Georgian)

Anecdotally, everyone knows that when you’re tired, you’re not at your best. Life sometimes gets in the way – family, money, health, can all combine to rob you of your edge.

But how tired is too tired?

The science is shockingly thin on that question. Even in industries where lives are on the line, such as aviation, we’re only now beginning to understand the implications.

This year, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board added fatigue to its Watchlist, saying the condition contributed or was a risk in 34 aviation incidents since the early 1990s.

New regulations, such as those announced Wednesday by Transport Canada, do help, but even the most stringent rules must be adapted to the realities faced by airlines, such as those that fly great distances in the far North.

So some airlines are trying to get a better handle on the science of rest.

For over a year now, about 50 pilots at Air Georgian, a regional airline that flies in Air Canada colours, have been wearing wrist monitors, having their fatigue evaluated as they go about their lives in the air and on the ground. That data is then reported to them and anonymously to the airline.

John Tory, Air Georgian’s vice-president of Corporate Development and Government Relations, spoke with Western Aviation News about the project. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WAN. Where did the idea come from?

Our CEO is a man named Eric Edmonson, and he’s somebody who thinks about flight safety all the time (and also a pilot), and he’s somebody who appreciates innovation, he knows that businesses have to change in order to stay at the forefront of safety and ahead of risks as we identify them, and he wanted find a way to incorporate better science into understanding how our pilots use rest from a standpoint of sleep hygiene.

WAN. If you look back before the project was launched and now, has your understanding of fatigue evolved at all?

It’s early to declare an evolution. Certainly what we’re understanding now is, there’s a lot to learn.

We’re very happy to know that there’s a lot of room in both the regulations and in the mentality of our flight crews and the management and our various teams to take that understanding and to really have flexibility with where we can go with what we might need to do with how we plan for things, how we plan for rest especially and how we represent the quality of represent of reset and sleep in our scheduling primarily is where you’d find it, but also operationally as our days unfold.

WAN. Has anything been incorporated yet in scheduling, taking what you’ve learned into account?

We’ve had – Air Georgian and many other carriers – a no-questions-asked policy around fatigue for a long time, for as long as we’ve been aware of fatigue as being something that has to be managed in a flight safety environment. So no different from yesterday or three weeks ago or two years ago, a pilot can phone the operations centre… or they can turn to their colleague beside them on the flight deck ans say “I am fatigued” and that phrase would have special meaning. It would result in that person not having to fly any more – in a non-punitive way – and safety, like in everything we do, remains the focus… that crew member would be relieved of their duty and we would find someone else to fly or another arrangement would have to be made.

Really what we’re trying to get at is the science of sleep and the science of rest and rest patterns and how that contributes to fatigue.

Fatigue as we know it now is largely a culmination of things. It’s more than you’re not getting enough sleep – although that in itself can lead you to being fatigued – when you add in things like stress, anxiety about workload, upcoming events, life events that aren’t related to work but are still very much present in your day-to-day life, all of those things play a role in fatigue and how fatigue will affect you.

What we want is to get to is a point where the pilot doesn’t have to flag themselves as fatigued.

An app displays a pilot’s potential alertness based on their fatigue measurements. (supplied)

WAN. So it sounds like you’re trying to get out ahead of fatigue as opposed to responding to it.

Absolutely. Just like every other risk element that we face in the flight environment whether it’s in the cockpit or on the ground or the weather around us or the passenger cabin or it’s in our maintenance environments, we absolutely want to be ahead of risk factors.

WAN. You’re a regional carrier… do you think that what you’re collecting could help inform other carriers?

We certainly think the scientific methods we’re doing could help just about anybody. I don’t think that sharing data on sleep quality and sleep hygiene could ever hurt people in those roles.

What our intent to do is to use science to have the safest possible fatigue regiment under these new regulations. Notwithstanding when we were anticipating they were coming, we started this work long ahead of time and long before we knew any data we were collecting would play a role in those regulations.

John Tory is the Vice President of Corporate Development and Government Relations at Air Georgian

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