Passenger Plane Pilots Fall Asleep in Middle of Flight and Fly Past Airport
Pilot fatigue is a common issue.
Reeling from a summer of delays, cancellations, and widespread lost luggage, this was a story the airline industry didn't need. This week, two pilots of a passenger aircraft apparently fell asleep in the middle of a flight. They managed to land the plane without injuries, but the incident has drawn renewed spotlight to a common and growing problem: Pilot fatigue. Read on to find out what happened and why a pilot's group says fatigue is a "number-one safety threat."
On Aug. 15, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET343 was en route from Khartoum to Addis Ababa. But the pilots of the Boeing 737 didn't begin their descent to Bole Airport on schedule, ultimately flying over the airport at 37,000 feet, the Aviation Herald reported.
Air traffic controllers tried to contact the pilots several times, but were unsuccessful. Eventually, the autopilot disconnected and an alarm sounded, waking the pair. Radar shows the plane turning around and making a landing attempt—25 minutes later than scheduled.
Aviation expert Alex Macheras tweeted: "Deeply concerning incident at Africa's largest airline — Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 #ET343 was still at cruising altitude of 37,000ft by the time it reached destination Addis Ababa. Why hadn't it started to descend for landing? Both pilots were asleep."
"Pilot fatigue is nothing new, and continues to pose one of the most significant threats to air safety—internationally," he wrote. "A timely reminder that pilot fatigue is widespread, an issue across the airline spectrum, sometimes systematic, and poses a major threat to air safety."
On Friday, Ethiopian Airlines said the plane "temporarily lost communication with Addis Ababa Air Traffic Control" but landed safely after contact was restored.
"The concerned crew have been removed from operation pending further investigation," the airline said. "Appropriate corrective action will be taken based on the outcome of the investigation. Safety has always been and will continue to be our first priority."
Some social media users found comedy in the incident; others found it less amusing.
"When they said nonstop flight they really meant nonstop!" said Twitter user @KHusson.
"I'm sure suspending the pilots, who were probably forced to work far too many hours in a row without rest, will solve this systemic problem," wrote @ExpedientFalcon.
"Ex controller here, trust me when I tell you it's happened here as well," said @tkloos.
"Note to self: Avoid flights with a 3:30 am departure time," said @RGeoffBaker.
This near-miss comes just months after CNN reported in April that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), warned that "Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines' number-one safety threat." Frequent cancellations because of severe weather, a pilot shortage caused partly by retirements during the pandemic, and a rebounding demand for air travel have stretched flight crews thin.
The SWAPA said the number of pilots who were unable to wrok because of exhaustion skyrocketed 600 percent in October 2021, and hit "another staggering 330 per cent increase" in March of this year.