Pilot fatigue raised in Canadian crashes

Twenty-eight people have died in a dozen plane crashes across Canada over the past decade in which fatigue was cited as a possible factor, a CBC News investigation has found.
Pilot fatigue has been cited in a dozen plane crashes across Canada over the past decade. ((CBC) )

Twenty-eight people have died in a dozen plane crashes across Canada over the past decade where fatigue was cited as a possible factor, a CBC News investigation has found.

Transportation Safety Board reports note pilot-fatigue-related issues in six deadly crashes and in an additional six accidents — including the Air France crash in Toronto — where all on board survived.

Most of the incidents involved small regional airlines, where many pilots complain about working long hours to increase their low earnings and rack up the required 1,000 flight hours to advance to captain status.


Aviation fatigue: What have you seen or experienced?

"Pilots would show up to work fatigued, land fatigued, take off again fatigued," said Steve, a pilot who asked that his real name not be used.

Steve admitted that he's fallen asleep driving his car to work and while in flight. He once awoke on a flight to discover both he and the flight captain had been asleep.

Many pilots at small airlines interviewed by CBC News spoke about feeling under pressure to exceed regulatory limits on the amount of time pilots are allowed to remain on duty, causing them to lie in logbooks to avoid Transport Canada's attention.

Similar to alcohol impairment

Under Canadian regulations, pilots can be on duty for 14 hours, or up to 17 hours if there are unforeseen circumstances.

Pilots flying planes carrying nine passengers or fewer can also work up to 14 consecutive days of 14 hours. Pilots of larger planes are capped at 12 hours a day for 14 days.

Drew Dawson, an expert on fatigue, says lack of sleep can have the same effects as alcohol. ((CBC))

Research has shown that people working 18 to 20 hours, if they start at 8 a.m., were almost as impaired as someone with a blood-alcohol level of .05 to .07 per cent. The legal limit for driving in Canada is .08 per cent blood-alcohol concentration.

The Australian study also showed that impairment rose to an equivalent of 0.1 blood-alcohol level when participants had been awake for 24 hours.

"If it's not OK to be impaired due to alcohol, why is it OK to have the same level of impairment due to fatigue?" asks Drew Dawson, an international expert on fatigue and director for the Centre for Sleep Research at Adelaide's University of South Australia, who conducted the study.

In one of Dawson's studies, he also found that with five or less hours of sleep, pilots doubled the number of mistakes they made.

'I had nothing left'

"No one wants to be exhausted. No one wants to get hurt. No one wants to have an accident. But it's the culture of the industry that brings us there," said Serge Gagné, a pilot who was involved in a deadly crash where fatigue was cited as a clear factor.

Gagné, 38, of Quebec City, knows all too well the pressures pilots at small airlines face. He was working for two Quebec regional airlines — Regionnair and Confortair — but still scraping by with earnings of less than $28,000 a year when the plane crash happened.

Though he was co-pilot on Regionnair Flight 347, he was operating the plane during the fatal landing, with the captain guiding him through thick fog at the airport in the eastern Quebec city of Sept-Iles just before midnight on Aug. 12, 1999. The Beech 1900 plane descended too early and hit trees two kilometres short of the runway, crashing into the ground.

Serge Gagné, 38, had been working for 30 days straight when he crashed a Regionnair flight in 1999. ((CBC))

The captain, Yvan Tremblay, was pulled from the wreckage but pronounced dead at hospital. Two passengers survived without a scratch.

At the time, Gagné was in his 18th hour of duty, having worked at both airlines, and on his 30th day in a row without a break. Records showed he had accumulated 60 hours over the monthly limit allowed by Transport Canada.

"I began feeling like I had been flattened. I couldn't do anything. I had no energy," recalls Gagné, who now works for another airline.

Though Canadian regulations prohibit air operators from putting pilots on duty if they've exceeded the time limits, Gagné says it's easy to do so without even realizing it, because hours are only reported once a month. 

"It's a question of money," said Steve. "The less pilots they hire, the more money they make. There's not a lot of spotlight on these [smaller] companies. Transport Canada doesn't focus their attention on them."

Pilots at larger airlines typically have better working conditions, but they are not immune to the problem of fatigue either, since they have long-haul flights and travel through multiple time zones.

Regulations dated: unions

The Air Canada Pilots Association and other unions, representing almost 7,000 pilots, have been calling for Transport Canada to change flight- and pilot-scheduling regulations.

Lack of sleep and disrupted circadian rhythms can lead to deadly pilot errors in the cockpit. ((CBC) )

"Our regulations are dated," said Barry Wiszniowski, a pilot and expert with the association. "Ours haven't been modified since 1995 and prior to that in the '40s."

In Europe, duty times are shorter when crew members start work during the night versus the day, to take into account the effects of circadian rhythms, a body's internal clock which is disrupted by time zone changes.

That's a stark comparison to Canada, where despite repeated references in Transportation Safety Board reports about the detrimental impact circadian rhythm disruptions can have on pilot ability, particularly during crises, there are no limitations that take them into account.

"In Canada, it doesn't matter what time of the day we start, no matter what time you wake up or where you are in your circadian rhythm, you're still able to work under the regulations for 14 hours," said Wiszniowksi.

For example, pilots can receive a call at 9 p.m. with a request to work a 14-hour shift, causing them to be awake for 24 hours, he says.

Rules under review: officials

Though Transport Canada initially dismissed concerns about pilot fatigue expressed by the unions, saying there was not enough Canadian data to warrant change, the federal agency has since altered its position.

"That was our position at one point, and we've certainly moved on," Martin Eley, head of civil aviation at Transport Canada, told CBC News.

"That has changed, because in June we are tabling the terms of reference for a working group to actually start looking at the current science and looking at where we need to update our regulations."

Eley acknowledges it will likely take a couple of years before the rules change.

In the U.S., the recent crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 into a residential area outside Buffalo, N.Y., has prompted a review of their airline industry. Pilot fatigue was mentioned as a factor in the official report on the crash, which killed all 49 aboard and one person on the ground.

Past report ignored

It isn't the first time Transport Canada has examined the pilot fatigue. Back in 2001, professor Hal Weinberg of Simon Fraser University was commissioned to report on it and submitted six recommendations.

There's nothing like a smoking hole in the ground to address attention.

Internal emails obtained by CBC found that Weinberg was asked by then director-general of civil aviation at Transport Canada to remove four of his six recommendations until further study.

The deleted sections called for duty schedules to take the individual's circadian rhythms into account. "Somebody taking off at, let's say, two o'clock in the morning is not the same as they are taking off at nine o'clock in the morning after eight hours of sleep," Weinberg told the CBC.

The followup research never happened, says Weinberg.

"Those recommendations are basically what we're asking for now," Wiszniowski said. "If they had been implemented in the time of the report, we could be already years ahead of where we are right now."

Asked about the removed recommendations, Transport Canada didn't have an explanation, but reiterated that a review is under way.

"The decision was made at that time not to move forward on the conclusion of those studies. That landscape has changed, and that's why we're moving forward now," said Eley.

Meanwhile, Dawson suggests that it may take more than a working group to shake the industry from its complacency.

"There's nothing like a smoking hole in the ground to address attention."

Click on the arrows to read more about each of 12 accidents linked to pilot fatigue. Red indicates a fatal crash, while green marks accidents where all passengers survived. All information is based on Transportation Safety Board of Canada reports.


  • A photo shown in an earlier version of this story was identified as Serge Gagné, when in fact it was another man.
    Mar 25, 2010 10:11 AM ET