CEO of Wizz Air faces backlash after he told pilots to work through their fatigue

The CEO of Wizz Air has drawn the ire of pilot unions after suggesting that too many crew members were refusing to fly because of fatigue.

According to The Guardian, Wizz Air CEO Jozsef Varadi told staff in an internal briefing that too many employees were taking time off due to fatigue at a time when the aviation industry is facing a staff crunch that has led to disrupted flight schedules.

“We are all fatigued but sometimes it is required to take the extra mile. I understand that fatigue is a potential outcome of the issues, but once we are starting stabilising the rosters, we also need to take down the fatigue rate.

I mean, we cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness because the person is fatigued.”

Jozsef Varadi, CEO, Wizz Air

Pilot fatigue is taken seriously in the aviation industry as it can lead to accidents and affect flight safety. Given that pilots often work long and unpredictable hours, the International Air Transport Association has a 148-page report on handling crew fatigue, as do other regulators like FAA.

Varadi, however, pointed to the “reputational damage” that comes with cancelling flights. “The damage is huge when we are cancelling a flight. It’s reputational damage of the brand and it is the other financial damage, the transactional damage because we have to pay compensation for that,” he told staff members in the briefing that has drawn backlash.

CEO of Wizz Air faces backlash after he told pilots to work through their fatigue

The European Cockpit Association shared the remarks, which were made over a private call, in a video on Twitter. “Wizz Air CEO encourages pilots to fly fatigued! It’s like handing the car keys to a drunk driver,” the Association wrote as it asked the European Union Aviation Safety Agency to “step in”.

Rules state that air crew should not fly, and should not be required to fly if they are in a state of fatigue which could endanger passengers or the aircraft.

A spokesperson for Wizz Air said the CEO’s remarks were taken out of context and were meant for the whole crew, not pilots specifically.

“This clip has been edited from a briefing to all staff (not pilots only, but also cabin crew and all office employees) on key business updates and current challenges facing aviation. Supply chain issues are affecting all airlines, in particular staff availability and welfare.

Our crew unavailability has been very low, at 4%. In this context, going the extra mile to minimize disruption was discussed. What this does not mean is compromising safety.”

Spokesperson, Wizz Air

The explanation has done little to placate pilot unions and other experts. Martin Chalk, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, told BBC he was “very surprised by the apparent views of Mr Varadi on fatigue” as “fatigue has been shown, in many studies, to have effects on a person’s thinking and decision making similar to alcohol”.

Aedrian Bekker, a clinical and aviation psychologist, also told CNN that the fact that Varadi was not referring to pilots specifically did not make his remarks any better.

“If a check-in agent is fatigued, could it start a chain of events that would be hard to prevent? All it takes is one person to make a mistake and not think of the implications — for someone not to put a screw back on, or do up a bolt properly.”We can all relate to [those kinds of lapses] but in any safety-critical industry, to tell people to suck it up and work harder? Common sense dictates that that’s not clever — especially not for a CEO who’s paid big bucks to motivate and energize.”

Aedrian Bekker, Clinical and Aviation Psychologist

Established in May 2004, Wizz Air is an ultra-low-cost carrier headquartered at Budapest Airport. Wizz Air predominantly uses secondary airports and is continuously looking at opportunities to expand its network of destinations and provide low-cost air transport to and from Central and Eastern Europe.

Founded by Váradi in 2003 after his time as CEO at the now-defunct Hungarian state-owned airline Malev, Wizz Air aimed to be an even more affordable version of Ryanair: an “ultra-low-cost” carrier.

Wizz Air is an ultra-low-cost carrier headquartered at Budapest Airport.

Váradi himself doesn’t operate on a shoestring budget: He’s set to receive a USD 124 million bonus should he double the company’s market cap in five years. 

Reportedly one of the biggest bonuses ever offered to the CEO of a U.K.-listed company, a full third of Wizz Air shareholders followed the recommendation of proxy advisers Glass Lewis and ISS in voting against what was deemed an excessive bonus.

Pilot Fatigue and Flight Safety

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) defines fatigue as “A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from sleep loss or extended wakefulness, circadian phase, or workload.”

Rules state that air crew should not fly, and should not be required to fly if they are in a state of fatigue which could endanger passengers or the aircraft.

The phenomenon places a great risk on the crew and passengers of an airplane because it significantly increases the chance of pilot error. Fatigue is particularly prevalent among pilots because of “unpredictable work hours, long duty periods, circadian disruption, and insufficient sleep”.

ALSO READ – What is Circadian Rhythm and how does it impact pilots?

These factors can occur together to produce a combination of sleep deprivation, circadian rhythm effects, and ‘time-on task’ fatigue. Regulators attempt to mitigate fatigue by limiting the number of hours pilots are allowed to fly over varying periods.

It has been estimated that 4-7% of civil aviation incidents and accidents can be attributed to fatigued pilots. “In the last 16 years, fatigue has been associated with 250 fatalities in air carrier accidents.” Robert Sumwalt, NTSB vice chairman, said at an FAA symposium in July 2016.

The magnitude of these effects is correlated to the circadian rhythm and length of time awake.

Symptoms associated with fatigue include slower reaction times, difficulty concentrating on tasks resulting in procedural mistakes, lapses in attention, inability to anticipate events, higher toleration for risk, forgetfulness, and reduced decision-making ability.

The magnitude of these effects is correlated to the circadian rhythm and length of time awake. Performance is affected the most when there is a combination of extended wakefulness and circadian influences.

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