The number of airline pilots complaining of fatigue increased tenfold in June, an industry expert has warned.
According to Allied Pilots Association Communications Chair Dennis Tajer, the increasing complaints come as airlines across the United States work to make up for lost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Allied Pilots Association is the labor union representing American Airlines pilots.
Speaking during an interview on Fox Business, Tajer said that there was a fourfold increase in the number of fatigue calls from American Airlines pilots in June alone.
On some days, there was a tenfold increase.
Tajer said this was a “warning sign that the system is under unnecessary duress.”
The chairman said the increase in fatigue calls was prompted by airlines scheduling too many flights compared to the number of trained and current pilots that they have, meaning pilots are either left exhausted or are beyond the legal limit of duty hours.
By law, an airline pilot can fly up to eight hours during any 24-consecutive-hour period or up to 10 hours if the flight has two pilots onboard.
No pilot can fly the aircraft if they have not received a minimum of 10 hours of rest between flights, including eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
For pilots that fly over multi-time zones, the rest time increases to 14 hours. Additionally, the duty period—the maximum time a pilot can be on duty—can only be up to 14 hours.
Tajer noted that calls from fatigued pilots would result in flights likely being delayed or canceled.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told Fox that it maintains these “strict duty and rest regulations for pilots to ensure continued safety.”
“This reckless utilization decreases reliability and can narrow the margin of safety,” Tajer said.
“We are holding the line on the margin of safety, but a functional safety culture should not have such pressures.”
Tajer also noted that there has been a surge in pilots who retired early or took a leave of absence during the COVID-19 pandemic as demand for travel declined amid lockdowns and other restrictions.
That is despite airlines receiving over $50 billion in COVID-19 relief aimed at keeping employees at work during the pandemic.
As a result, there is now a shortage of trained and current pilots, Tajer said, while some pilots are flying planes for the maximum number of hours allowed by the FAA on a more regular basis.
But Tajer said that pilots who stick to these legal limits could still be unsafe to fly.
“Just because you’re legal by the FAA limits does not mean that it’s safe or smart,” Tajer said.
“The FAA maximums are a barbed wire fence.
“When you run up against that fence consistently, you are eventually going to get cut.”
Tajer’s comments come after the CEO of European budget carrier Wizz Air, József Váradi, came under fire in June after he suggested that airline employees continue to work even when they are feeling exhausted.
“We cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness, because the person is fatigued,” said Váradi at a staff briefing in June in which he cited costs from cancellations.
“Sometimes it is required to take the extra mile.
“The damage is huge when we are canceling the flight, it’s huge.”
At the time, a Wiz spokesperson told Fortune in a statement that the video of the briefing had been edited and that the company is not “compromising safety,” adding that “Wizz Air and the airline industry are highly regulated, and safety has, and always will be, our first priority.”
American Airlines said in a statement to Fox that the carrier “builds pilot schedules well within the federal limits, oftentimes up to several hours under the limit based on our contract” and that it has “specific policies and procedures in place to ensure pilots receive adequate rest” and that “pilots can request to be removed from a trip due to fatigue without penalty.”
According to consulting firm Oliver Wyman, demand for pilots will outstrip supply in most regions across the world between 2022 and 2024 and the trend will continue to worsen over the next decade, with the company forecasting global aviation to be short nearly 80,000 pilots by 2032.