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Airline CEO tells staff to push through fatigue

Julia Buckley

As chaos engulfs the aviation industry this summer, one airline CEO has come up with a novel way of cutting down on flight cancellations: telling staff to take less time off.

József Váradi, CEO of Wizz Air, the European low-cost carrier, told employees at a meeting this week that too many of them were taking time off for fatigue, and that “sometimes it is required to go the extra mile.”

Pilot fatigue is taken seriously in the industry, with the Flight Safety Foundation calling it an” internationally recognized issue related to the broader issue of fitness for duty.” IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has a 148-page report on handling crew fatigue, and the FAA producing awareness videos for the industry.

Fatigue was also an element blamed for the American Airlines flight 1420 crash, which killed 11 in 1999.

The remark — made on a private call to all Wizz Air employees in all areas of the company — was recorded and shared on social media by the European Cockpit Association, which called it a “deficient safety culture alert.”

In the clip, Váradi says: “Now that everyone is getting back into work, I understand that fatigue is a potential outcome of the issues. But once we start stabilizing the rosters we also need to take down the fatigue rate.

“We cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness because the person is fatigued.

“We are all fatigued. But sometimes it is required to go the extra mile.

“The damage is huge when we are canceling a flight. It’s reputational damage of the brand and it is the other financial damage, the transactional damage because we have to pay compensation for that.”

A spokesperson for Wizz Air said that the comment was directed at all airline workers, rather than pilots specifically.

“This clip has been edited from a briefing to all staff (not pilots only, but also cabin crew and all office employees) on key business updates and current challenges facing aviation,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Supply chain issues are affecting all airlines, in particular staff availability and welfare.

“Our crew unavailability has been very low, at 4%. In this context, going the extra mile to minimize disruption was discussed. What this does not mean is compromising safety.

“Wizz Air and the airline industry are highly regulated, and safety has, and always will be, our first priority. We have a robust and responsible crew management system which meets the needs of our people and enables us to serve as many customers as possible in the current challenging environment.”

‘All it takes is one mistake’

But Aedrian Bekker, a clinical and aviation psychologist and director of the UK’s Centre for Aviation Psychology, told CNN that the fact that Váradi was not specifically addressing pilots doesn’t make it any better, calling staff absence “an indicator of morale.”

“If an organization has an issue with increased sickness of staff, the reasons are often as a result of the organization. Telling pilots to ‘suck it up’ goes against every sinew of sensible safety management over the past 20 years,” he said.

“Many pilots working in large airlines often feel that they are treated like commodities, worked to the legal limits of capacity and then disposed of when no longer required.”

He added that it’s not just pilots who, when tired, could make a mistake that could start a catastrophic chain of events.

“We know all parts of aviation are finely stretched at the moment, and these people are working at incredible levels of strain,” he said.

“If a check in agent is fatigued, could it start a chain of events that would be hard to prevent? All it takes is one person to make a mistake and not think of the implications — for someone not to put a screw back on, or do up a bolt properly.

“We can all relate to [those kinds of lapses] but in any safety-critical industry, to tell people to suck it up and work harder? Common sense dictates that that’s not clever — especially not for a CEO who’s paid big bucks to motivate and energize.

“If you were to undergo a medical procedure, how safe would you feel knowing the person doing it was fatigued, even if operating in a fantastic background, with technology — would you feel comfy going under their knife? Despite the levels of automation, crew still make highly critical safety decisions — especially if there are problems, like storms or severe delays.”

The leaked video has been greeted with horror from the aviation community on social media. One pilot tweeted: “This is one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever heard an airline CEO say. It speaks to a fundamental lack of understanding of fatigue and its effects on flight.”

Steven Ehrlich, chairman of PilotsTogether, a charity supporting UK pilots who lost their jobs in the pandemic, told CNN: “Asking pilots to fly while fatigued is a dangerous and inappropriate precedent introducing unnecessary risk to passengers, pilots, and the public on the ground.

“We encourage drivers of cars to pull to the side of the road or into a rest area if fatigued and in this profession there is no difference: safety is paramount. There is no room for compromise.

“Any airline that does play fast and loose with this rule will end up losing the trust of their passengers, their pilots, and the public. Fatigue leads to the possibility of loss of attention, it allows for mistakes to be made, and for perception to be altered.

“Pilots are under more stress these days due to the impact of Covid redundancies, the need for re-qualification and the polishing up of skills, and the airline operational pressures currently in the news.”

Pilots union BALPA tweeted: “We’re shocked an airline CEO would advise actions so contrary to basic safety culture. BALPA urges Mr Varadi to swiftly clarify that Wizz Air would fully support any pilot who does the right thing by not flying if they feel fatigued, for the safety of passengers, crew & aircraft.”

Last week the New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association flagged pilot fatigue as a danger, telling local press: “Fatigue can be as dangerous as drug and alcohol misuse and can lead to errors with potentially fatal consequences.”

Based in Hungary, Wizz Air is one of the fastest growing budget airlines in Europe. It also prides itself on having the continent’s least ecologically damaging fleet.

Main image: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via AP

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