The jumbo jet, which was flying from Spain to Germany, made the “pan pan” call – a distress call that signifies that there is urgency on board – due to “extreme fatigue” and requested an expedited landing at Munich Airport. The request was granted and the aircraft landed on autopilot. According to German Air Traffic Control (DFS), the incident is the first time a “pan pan” call has been used due to fatigue.
BFU, the German federal agency that is responsible for air accident investigation, has announced that it is taking the incident seriously, and is carrying out a thorough investigation. BFU will publish its findings in July 2012.
The incident drew attention to a serious and high profile issue of cockpit fatigue, which pilots associations and airlines around the world are facing. In a study carried out by the British Airline Pilots Association, it was revealed that one in five EasyJet pilots admitted to sleeping while on duty. About 50% of the pilots in the study indicated that they suffer from serious fatigue. In Australia, a Qantas airline pilot expressed concern about tiredness from night shifts. More cases of cockpit fatigue have been reported.
However, many commentators have questioned whether the Air Berlin distress call was a genuine emergency, or whether it was made to simply highlight the problem.
Ilja Schulz, president of the German pilots' union, Vereinigung Cockpit (VC), has expressed his disappointment at questions around the authenticity of the distress call. Schulz said,
I think this incident shows very clearly that pilots are already flying fatigued today even under the existing rules.
Schulz said the union is aware that pilots’ rules and regulations go "far beyond the capabilities of the human body." He also said that the union recently carried out a survey that indicated about 37% of the participating pilots admitted to have unintentionally fallen asleep in the cockpit.