Two-thirds of pilots in India admit to falling asleep at the controls

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Some 66 per cent of Indian pilots questioned said they have fallen asleep while at the controls of the plane - Richard Sharrocks /GETTY IMAGES
Some 66 per cent of Indian pilots questioned said they have fallen asleep while at the controls of the plane - Richard Sharrocks /GETTY IMAGES

Two-thirds of pilots in India have admitted falling asleep in the cockpit, prompting serious concerns about safety as the country struggles to recruit enough captains.

Some 66 per cent of pilots questioned said they have fallen asleep while at the controls of the plane without alerting a fellow staff member, according to a study conducted on 542 regional, domestic and international pilots by the Safety Matters Foundation.

India, home to 1.38 billion people, is the world’s fastest growing aviation market. Airlines require up to 1,500 new pilots annually but only 200 to 300 are qualifying, resulting in huge shortages of trained pilots.

India is also recovering from the severe disruptions to the aviation industry caused by the pandemic.

Pilots attributed overwork and being expected to fly back-to-back morning flights, which meant waking up as early as 2am as the leading cause for falling asleep in the cockpit.

Nearly a third of respondents admitted to having a close call while flying which could have led to an incident, which they attributed to extreme tiredness.

Fatigue is one of the main reasons attributed to plane accidents. There are hundreds of flights each week between India and the UK, where some 1.5 million British Indians live.

“Circadian misalignment can make you feel drained and can have serious health consequences. Repeated flight duty in this period [early morning] will not only affect sleep quality but over 10-12 hours duty will lead to poor cognition thereby affecting flight safety,” said Captain Amit Singh, a pilot and the founder of the Safety Matters Foundation.

Aviation accidents are rare, but when they have occurred, figures show that 80 per cent are a result of human error, with pilot fatigue accounting for 15-20 per cent of human error in fatal accidents. Fatigue leads to slower reaction times and impaired concentration and decision making.

In 2010, an Air India Express flight from Dubai to the southern Indian city of Mangalore crashed on landing, killing 158 people. It was later discovered the pilot had been asleep for one hour and 40 minutes of the two hour flight.

Growing aircraft safety concerns in India

There are growing aircraft safety concerns in India, with eight aviation accidents every year now on average. The figure is up from the four accidents in 2021 and two in 2020, according to data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

The last major crash was in 2020, when 21 people died when an Air India Express flight skidded off the runway in heavy monsoon rain in the southern Indian city of Calicut.

In addition to overworked pilots, unpredictable weather, especially during the summer monsoon season, aircraft maintenance is also sporadic.

In one infamous incident in December, a baggage handler in Mumbai fell asleep in the hold of an IndiGo plane while loading luggage and woke up in Abu Dhabi.

On Wednesday, India’s air safety watchdog extended restrictions on SpiceJet, India’s second largest carrier, over safety lapses, until October 29.

The airline has been restricted to 50 per cent of scheduled departures since July after eight in-air technical malfunctions in 16 days in June.