An airline captain has won a tribunal against his employer, after being sanctioned for refusing to fly while it was acknowledged he was severely fatigued.
Captain Mike Simkins was suspended for six months and threatened with dismissal by Thomas Cook after he refused to fly a Boeing 767 carrying more than 200 passengers.
He made the decision not to fly after working three early starts in a row, including an 18-hour day and what would have been a 19-hour day to follow, the tribunal heard. After being suspended, Simkins raised a grievance against his employer, which resulted in the tribunal case.
Fatigue monitoring software owned by Thomas Cook showed that if Simkins had flown the scheduled flight, he would have experienced a predicted performance loss equivalent to being four times over the legal alcohol limit for flying.
Thomas Cook maintained there was no point at which Simkins was asked to fly while fatigued, and said the tribunal was the result of a disagreement with management. The tribunal passed a unanimous verdict in Simkins’ favour and ordered the airline to lift its suspension.
The employer said in a statement that it had “robust processes to ensure all the legal limits on flying time are met”. It apologised to Simkins for the “hurt and distress” caused by the case.
Experts backed the tribunal’s ruling. “Not only is it reasonable to refuse to fly when fatigued, it is absolutely necessary,” said Dr Rob Hunter, head of flight safety at the British Airline Pilots Association.
“In fact, the law states that a pilot must not operate when fatigued, or is likely to become fatigued. Captain Simkins should have been praised by Thomas Cook for reporting his fatigued state as required by law, not disciplined.
“Fatigue is a major threat to flight safety and a good, open safety culture is vital in ensuring that pilots and other staff members feel able to report fatigue and not put lives at stake.”
The ruling coincides with the release of a landmark study suggesting that more than 4,000 commercial flights on any given day are being flown by pilots who have experienced suicidal thoughts.
The international survey of almost 3,500 pilots carried out by Harvard University found that 4.1 per cent had contemplated suicide at least once in the previous fortnight. More than 12 per cent of surveyed pilots met the criteria for depression.
While pilots diagnosed with acute depression are automatically deemed unfit to fly, experts suggest the implementation of a screening process would be pointless, as any diagnosis would rely on the pilots being honest about their mental ill-health. More than 1,000 of the pilots who participated in the anonymous survey refused to answer questions relating to their mental health.
“We found that many pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms, and it may be that they are not seeking treatment because of the fear of negative career impacts,” said lead researcher Professor Joseph Allen.
Almost 60 per cent of pilots in a separate survey from the London School of Economics earlier this year said they or their colleagues were often fatigued. Half thought their employers did not take the issue sufficiently seriously.
Meanwhile, fatigue has also been named as a factor in a forthcoming strike by more than 2,000 British Airways staff.
Unite’s regional officer, Matt Smith, said cabin crew were “at breaking point” over a basic salary of £12,000 that has left some workers sleeping in their cars between shifts or moonlighting in other jobs to get by.
“Mixed fleet crew earn just over the minimum wage and below the national average. Significant numbers of crew are taking on second jobs, and many go to work unfit to fly because they can’t afford to be sick,” he said.
“Inexperience, fatigue and the fact that BA recently cut the length of crew training courses means Unite is genuinely concerned about the potential repercussions.” The airline said it was “disappointed” by the action and said new rates would increase pay by up to 7 per cent among those affected.
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