July 22, 2024

Qatari pilot Prisma reveals: ‘I slept while going down and on board 400 people’

5 min read

A serious complaint lodged less than 10 months before the start of the FIFA World Cup is casting doubt on much of the credibility of Qatar Airways – one of the event’s sponsors – which was elected for the sixth time in a row in 2021 as the world’s best airline.

In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation – Qatar Airways pilots said the state-owned airline underestimated its pilots’ working hours and ignored complaints of fatigue – a safety violation that harms the health of staff and threatens the lives of passengers.

The testimony shows how worker abuse extends even to highly skilled industries in the Gulf state, as Qatar Airways tries to reduce crew downtime.

“This is clearly a major health and safety issue for the pilots themselves – and for the people who fly with them,” said Isobel Archer of the Center for Business and Human Rights Resource.

These discoveries come months before Qatar hosts its first World Cup with Qatar Airways – as the main sponsor – hoping to be the preferred football carrier. But pilots are concerned about the risks fans may face, saying the extra-long flights are now run by understaffed and overworked teams, a stress exacerbated by the pandemic.

Eric recalls the 20-hour flight that landed safely at the airline’s base in Doha: “I slept on the landing with 400 passengers on board.”

“You can’t do anything. Your body is just screaming for comfort,” the first officer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, using a pseudonym so he could speak more freely. “You feel the pain inside your chest and you can’t keep your eyes open.”

Eric and six other flight crew members said they were overworked by the airline’s working hours and that managers refused to give them enough rest.

Many have not even submitted fatigue reports, fearing further scrutiny from an airline that has laid off thousands of employees in the pandemic. Others said their reports were ignored or not rested to fit the shift.

“We’re exhausted and exhausted – but I’ve never made a report of fatigue because I don’t want to be in the spotlight,” Eric said.

Fatigue is common for commercial airline pilots, according to several studies, and companies often operate Fatigue Risk Management (FRM) systems to ensure pilots don’t fly too long and get enough rest at their base.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked Qatar Airways if it has noticed an increase in fatigue or safety concerns, how it calculates hours worked and rest, and whether it is taking steps to make employees more comfortable reporting fatigue.

A spokesperson said the airline is working with employees to “ensure that the break times and escalation needs of our flight crew team are strictly balanced with the airline’s operational requirements, particularly given the unique challenges the global commercial airline industry faces.”

The airline said it was working to implement “the most stringent burnout risk management programme”.

In 2020, Qatar Airways announced that it would lay off one in five workers as the novel coronavirus slashed global demand for travel. It fell another 27% in 2021 to a team of 36,700.

The airline reduced its list of destinations to 33 cities in 2020, but returned to more than 140 in 2021, when destinations reopened.

The pilots said that in order to run these new flights with smaller crews, the airline was calculating fewer hours to maximize the flights it operated while technically playing with the rules.

A cabin crew member’s “idle” period has no bearing on the downtime he or she earns, according to a copy of the airline’s operations manual seen by Thomson Reuters.

As a result, many long flights can be considered idle, even if the pilot is on standby and with his supporting colleagues.

The manual states that, in order to relieve fatigue, “rest on board does not count as flight time”, deviating from the standard calculation used by most civil aviation authorities.

“They say the hours differently. Not so long ago I was the ‘third driver’ on duty – my duty was to keep an eye on the drivers up front, so I was 100% active,” said Eric.

“The flight duration was 1 hour 33 minutes, but the calculated time was only three minutes. This is what was determined for my flight limit,” he said.

Two fellow officers logged flying hours in the first two weeks of January that exceeded 115 hours, above the 28-day limit of 100 hours listed in the airline’s handbook.

The airline said it had implemented “improved terms and conditions for working hours” but did not elaborate.

A former employee said the job left him so tired that when he was fired last year, “it was a relief.”

“I thought, Wow, I’m finally going to rest,” he added.

Qatar’s Civil Aviation Authority, which sets the country’s airspace safety regulations, did not respond to requests for comment.

Six cabin crew members said their stress was affecting their sleep patterns and mental health.

“It causes stress. It feels like the bucket is full now, and if something work-related happens, you feel stronger,” said the first officer, who said he involuntarily naps at least 10 times, usually while going down.

“I often have problems sleeping. Even when I am tired, sometimes it is difficult to fall asleep, which leads to more tiredness. I feel so tired that I start to feel sick or drunk.”

A 2018 study of fatigue among commercial pilots in the Gulf found that more than two-thirds of them were “severely fatigued”.

Senior researcher Tariq Al-Jarf said highly stressed pilots are more likely to develop depression. Approximately 30% of respondents were at risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea, in which a person stops breathing intermittently during sleep.

Qatar Airways said its staff are “fully supported by a range of mental health and wellness support services,” but did not give details.

A copy of the airline’s one-month stress survey by the airline’s Group Safety Office in 2020 seen by Thomson Reuters reported that 60% of pilots reported that their levels of fatigue and stress were affecting their sleep.

Despite the prevalence and risk of burnout, several crew members said their superiors did not take their concerns seriously.

A first officer said he had submitted eight reports of fatigue after falling asleep on more than a dozen flights recently.

Three flatly refused. An approved order gave him 24 hours of rest in Doha – after which he was scheduled to make the 23-hour return trip to East Asia.

Two crew members ignored all but one of the fatigue reports.

Two others said they declined to report the fatigue because they did not want to risk losing their jobs.

The airline’s 2020 fatigue survey reported that more than 90% of pilots surveyed had not submitted a fatigue report in the past year, some due to “repetition concerns.” Less than half were “confident of submitting security reports”.

The testimonials were particularly alarming ahead of the soccer World Cup in November, when Qatar is expected to welcome 1.2 million tourists.

Qatar Airways is a sponsor and service provider, so it is ready to make significant profits from this tournament. Archer said the fact that it appears to be operating at the expense of the health and safety of its employees is troubling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *