In an unnerving situation that might provide another example of the ongoing woes in the commercial airline industry, two pilots allegedly dozed off at the controls when they should have been preparing for landing.
The Boeing 737-800 reportedly had remained at a cruising altitude of 37,000 feet instead of descending to the airport.
The Ethiopian Airlines flight was en route to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from Khartoum, Sudan, when the now-suspended duo allegedly nodded off and overshot the airport, apparently prompting the on-board autopilot to disengage.
According to The Aviation Herald, which first reported the incident, air traffic control “tried to contact the crew numerous times without success.” After the autopilot disconnected, an alarm in the cockpit woke up the crew, “who then maneuvered the aircraft for a safe landing… about 25 minutes after overflying the runway.”
In a statement about the August 15 incident which omitted any mention of the pilots’ allegedly napping, Ethiopian Air Lines referred only to a temporary loss of communications between the plane and the tower.
“The concerned Crew have been removed from operation pending further investigation. 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,” the statement added.
In a Twitter thread, aviation analyst Alex Macheras described the incident as “deeply concerning,” and noted that “pilot fatigue is nothing new, and continues to pose one of the most significant threats to air safety – internationally.”
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. https://t.co/cPPMsVHIJD pic.twitter.com/RpnxsdtRBf
— Alex Macheras (@AlexInAir) August 18, 2022
He also opined that “A timely reminder that pilot fatigue is widespread, an issue across the airline spectrum, sometimes systematic, and poses a major threat to air safety.”
It has not been detailed as to how many passengers were aboard the two-hour, 600-mile flight, but the jet has a seating capacity about 150-180 depending on the configuration.
Government-owned Ethiopian Airlines is said to be Africa’s largest carrier with a fleet of 138 planes. In addition to passenger flights, it also transports cargo. In calendar year 2020, nearly 10 million passengers traveled on Ethiopian Airlines.
“Pilot fatigue is not new. In fact, in-flight fatigue has been reported by 68 to 91% of commercial airline pilots, according to a study last year conducted by Frontiers. Earlier this year, the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, the union which represents Southwest Airlines pilots, told airlines executives in an open letter that exhaustion amongst crews has become dangerous,” CBS News explained on Saturday.
Earlier this month, BPR separately reported on another round of mass flight cancellations or delays, plus lost baggage, which, in part, is apparently attributable to overworked, stretched-thin airline employees, including pilots and flight attendants, in an industry struggling with staff shortages.
Air travel is breaking down, 1000 flights cancelled or delayed over weekend https://t.co/Y3pRWfwFtv pic.twitter.com/no58ma4lbI
— Conservative News (@BIZPACReview) August 8, 2022
Hiring in the airline industry in the post-pandemic environment has reportedly not kept up with consumer demand.
Back in June, a Southwest Airlines pilot implied that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is the source of the turbulence in the airline industry.
Watch a report on the Ethiopian Airlines incident as broadcast by India Today:
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