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The Evacuation of US Air Flight 1549 Brings Up Fatigue Issues for Flight Attendants

By Lori Brown
February 27, 2009

The successful landing of US Air Flight 1549 on the Hudson River without the loss of life was nothing short of a miracle, and the performance of the flight and cabin crew was exemplary. Lori Brown returns with a timely reminder that, while flight crew fatigue is an all-too-regular and dangerous issue, cabin crew fatigue is an equally understudied, underappreciated, and unsafe issue that needs more serious attention.

US Air flight 1549, on January 19, 2009—should make all of us thankful and more aware of the safety role that the modern flight attendant plays. Many passengers think the flight attendant is onboard for passenger comfort. This became evident by the majority of reports and comments about flight 1549, praising the pilots. Many of these media reports did not even acknowledge that there were two pilots in the flight deck of the Airbus. US Air Captain Sullenberger, and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, certainly deserve due credit for safely ditching Flight 1549 into the Hudson, after hitting a flock of birds, however, let us also fully recognize the crew resource management, and specifically, the efforts of the three flight attendants.

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Although the pilots did exercise sound decision making, and exceptional skill, we have to view this success from a “crew” standpoint. We can not underestimate the challenge that three flight attendants would have in evacuating 150 passengers. Sheila Dail, Doreen Welsh, and Donna Dent—with a combined 92 years of experience on the job—were the ones who opened emergency exits, commanded passengers to don life jackets, unfasten their seatbelts and evacuate. All 150 passengers were evacuated in safe manor. “They did everything right,” said Mike Flores, who heads the chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) Union, which represents the US Air Flight Attendants. “Had they made one mistake, we would be talking about a completely different outcome than we saw on Thursday.”

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Just as the pilots train for engine failures, the flight attendants train for ditching and water evacuations. Flight Attendants often work with a tremendous amount of fatigue, due to their long duty days and sometimes short layovers. As stated by the International President of the AFA-CWA, flight attendant union, “Flight attendant fatigue is a chronic problem in the aviation industry and it continues to jeopardize the ability to fulfill important safety and security roles.” Specific to the aviation industry, fatigue has been a long-standing concern in accident and incident investigative reports.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and US Air, Flight Attendants Dail and Dent were seated at the front of the cabin. They told investigators they shouted “Brace!” just before the emergency landing. Then they commanded the evacuation to life rafts on the left and right side exits. Flight Attendant Welsh was seated in the aft of the aircraft, where the landing would have been felt with more force. She waded in chest-high cold water, directing passengers to exit over the wings, she told investigators. “Only after all the passengers escaped did she realize she had suffered a deep cut on her leg,” NTSB member Kitty Higgins said.

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Airlines Restructure

As airlines restructure and cut corners to make ends meet, flight attendants are experiencing a new industry trend that must be put to rest. At many carriers, flight attendants are being forced to work to the point of exhaustion because of poorly scheduled duty time, lengthened duty days due to concessionary bargaining, or flagrant company violations of flight attendants’ schedules.

As the deep concessions demanded of flight attendants during the recent and ongoing financial turmoil of the airline industry have taken hold, it has become clear that airline management hopes to keep crews working longer duty days with greatly reduced time off between duties. As stated by the AFA, “Some air carriers are routinely taking advantage of a “reduced rest” provision in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Flight Attendant Duty Time and Rest Regulations which allows the minimum rest of nine hours to be reduced to eight. Flight Attendants have reported that in some cases they have forgotten to perform critical safety functions, including the arming of doors and have even fallen asleep on the jumpseats. We are also seeing a marked increase in inadvertent slide deployments, which is very costly to the airlines.

The NTSB itself has recognized the danger posed by fatigue in the transportation industry, and has recommended setting work hour limits for transportation operators based on fatigue research, in the areas of pilot fatigue, air traffic control, and some research on maintenance fatigue. There is no doubt that fatigue—pilot, air traffic control, and maintenance—is of serious concern. However, the industry needs to realize the flight attendant fatigue is also a serious concern, particularly in the era of heightened security awareness (Friend, 2007) and large scale evacuations like US Air1549.


Research efforts on human factors—including the effects of fatigue, sleepiness, sleep disorders and circadian factors—on transportation safety has become a top priority. Most of this research has been focused on the flight crew, and only recently have we seen flight attendant fatigue studies. We have seen the roles and responsibilities of flight attendants change in recent years. They are the frontline responders who must be observant to the possibility of security and other threats. Research has identified key findings concerning fatigue in the flight attendant occupational setting, where sleep deprivation and disruption of circadian rhythms are known to occur (Friend, 2007).

A web-based survey conducted after 9/11 assessed the fatigue of flight attendants working for a major U.S. airline (Sherry & Philbrick, 2004). This web-based survey revealed pervasive fatigue on a number of dimensions using multiple measures with the authors concluding that the studied cohort was “clearly one of the most fatigued populations we have studied.” The data from this study showed that the average amount of sleep reported was 6.4 hours, an amount known to cause fatigue problems, particularly if continued over a number of days.

According to Nesthes, D.J., and Schroder (2007), “with models, new technology, and convenient logical interface tools we can anticipate worker fatigue, optimize schedules, reduce risk of error, and improve safety. We can also isolate fatigue related events through education and planning for the use of mitigations and countermeasures, staffing analysis and workforce planning. In addition to increased safety, the economical byproduct of reducing fatigue is a reduction of related costs. By decreasing fatigue and associated errors, we can enable operational improvements and further meet business requirements of today’s airlines, in these lean times. These cost reductions are attributed to less ‘loss of work’ time, a reduction of on the job injuries, inadvertent slide deployments and other costly incidents and potential accidents.”


We can use results garnered from previous fatigue studies to suggest potential countermeasures to sleep and circadian issues that flight and cabin crews encounter, and each individual crew member will benefit from these countermeasures differently. This is why education about fatigue and countermeasures is a crucial element of training. In order to maximize the success for each individual crew member, researches suggests trying different combinations to discover what is the most effective for them (Fatigue Countermeasures Group, 2005).

One of the most crucial countermeasures reported is the early recognition of fatigue in individuals and other crew members. Fatigue needs to be recognized in order to address it. Because it is difficult for people to estimate their own alertness and fatigue levels, more objective criteria may help in assessment. Some of the signs that may be caused by fatigue are: forgetfulness, poor decision making, slower reaction time, decreased vigilance, communication difficulties, fixation, lethargy, and moodiness. If any of these signs are apparent, the individual can employ preventative or operational alertness strategies.

Preventive strategies (used before flying or between flights to reduce the effects of fatigue, sleep loss, and circadian disruption) and operational strategies (used during flights to maintain alertness and performance) can help ensure restorative sleep and minimize circadian rhythm interruptions.

According to the Association of Flight Attendants CWA (AFA-CWA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally delivered the flight attendant fatigue study to Congress, who requested it at AFA-CWA's urging last year. Originally due back to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in June 2005, the FAA had been ignoring the requests of AFA-CWA and Congress to release the results for over a year.

Patricia Friend, AFA-CWA International President said, “Fatigue has been overlooked for too long which is what makes this study even more vital.” The results confirm that flight attendants are frequently “experiencing issues consistent with fatigue and tiredness” and that “fatigue appears to be a salient issue warranting further evaluation.”

According to recommendations cited in the report, “based on the incident reports, flight attendant comments, and the outcomes from the sampling of actual duty and rest time, it appears that the opportunities for adequate rest for flight attendants need to be further evaluated.”

The study also mentions that regulations created by the FAA governing flight attendant duty and rest requirements are minimal standards. To truly address fatigue, the regulations must be combined with “sound and realistic operational practices,” as well as personal strategies.

Friend also added, “the FAA approving the report is one hurdle we have overcome. They have proven that current rest periods are inadequate and need to be re-evaluated. Now it is time to move forward and take the steps necessary to end flight attendant fatigue and enact meaningful regulations that would help solve this problem.”

In June, over 50 AFA-CWA flight attendants spent the night in front of the FAA headquarters to show FAA Administrator Marion Blakey that the results of this important study were needed immediately. AFA-CWA and Congress have also formally requested the study several times, all with no response from the FAA.


The department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Association Aeromedical research, proposed an earmark for flight attendant fatigue issues. The amended bill provides $980,000 for the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, as proposed by the Senate, and requires a flight attendant fatigue report to be submitted by December 31, 2009.

In summary

Recommendations for further study include: (House Rpt.108-671)

1). A scientifically based, survey of flight attendants to assess the frequency with which fatigue is experienced, the situations in which it appears, and the consequences.

2). A focused study of aviation incident reports in order to determine what role fatigue played in already reported safety incidents.

3). The need for research on the effects of fatigue. This research would explore the impact that rest schedules, circadian factors and sleep loss have on flight attendants’ ability to perform their duties.

4). The determination and validation of fatigue models for assessing how fatigued a flight attendant will become.

5). Development of training material to reduce the level of fatigue that may be experienced by crews and to avoid factors that may increase fatigue levels.

It is abundantly clear that flight attendant fatigue is real, and is a problem that is growing. Some may argue that an error caused by flight attendant fatigue is not as serious as an error caused by pilot fatigue; however, an error caused due to flight attendant fatigue can lead to a tragic loss of life in the event of an inflight emergency or during an evacuation. To effectively address fatigue we must combine regulations with operational practices, countermeasures, and education.

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For over 60 years, the Association of Flight Attendants has been serving as the voice for flight attendants in the workplace, in the aviation industry, in the media and on Capitol Hill. More than 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines come together to form AFA-CWA, the world's largest flight attendant union. AFA is part of the 700,000-member strong Communications Workers of America (CWA), AFL-CIO. Visit the AFA at www.afanet.org.


Fatigue Countermeasures Group (2005), Human Factors Research and Technology Division, NASA Ames Research Center. Flight Attendant Fatigue.

Friend, Patricia, (June 2006). Testimony of Patricia A. Friend, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants. CWA-AFL-CIO, Before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Hursh, S.R., Redmond, D.P., Johnson, M.L., Thorne, D.R., Belenky, G., Balkin, T.J., (2004). Fatigue models for applied research in war fighting. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.

Nesthes, D.J., Schroder (July 2007), Flight Attendant fatigue Study, Dot/FAA/AM-07/21, FAA Office of Aerospace

Sherry, P., & Philbrick, K., (2004, May). Report on American airlines professional flight attendants fatigue survey. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, Dallas, TX.

The Departments of Transportation, and Treasury, Appropriations Bill (2007), House Rpt.108-671.

Written by
Lori Brown

Lori Brown is faculty Specialist, at Western Michigan University, College of Aviation. She is the Lead Researcher for WMU’s Crew Safety and Security Research Team. With over 25 years of experience as a flight attendant and pilot, she is uniquely qualified to investigate safety issues “from both sides of the flight deck door.” She is researching Flight attendant/pilot communications, security training, and the use of high lux lights to mitigate fatigue for flight attendants, pilots and air traffic controllers. The research team uses an MD-80 cabin Trainer (donated by Spirit Airlines) for their research laboratory. See WMU's Crew Safety and Security Team webpage for more information.

12 User Comments:
Username: Jpc11 [User Info]
Posted 2009-02-28 06:06:57 and read 32768 times.

It is a cool artical. How did captain sunenberg do it?

Username: Syncmaster [User Info]
Posted 2009-03-01 15:40:57 and read 32768 times.

Great article Lori, glad to see WMU and its faculty getting involved with Airliners.net. Thanks for sharing!

Username: Avtraveler [User Info]
Posted 2009-03-22 18:09:15 and read 32768 times.

It is now announced that the FAA regulators this week withdrew a proposal mandating extra rest for U.S. pilots flying the longest international routes.

"The Federal Aviation Administration's decision jettisons, at least for the time being, a policy which senior officials had championed as an important safety measure. By establishing new standards for the longest routes, the agency had hoped to set a precedent for addressing the broader issue of pilot fatigue throughout the industry. The agency had been pushing for additional rest for pilots before, during and after these long-haul runs." Read the Wall Street Journal article By ANDY PASZTOR

Username: Monteycarlos [User Info]
Posted 2009-04-24 19:31:45 and read 32768 times.

A well written article Lori. I am currently working in an area that directly deals with such issues on a day-to-day basis and also conducting research into this area for postgratuate studies. I found it very helpful and informative. Well done.

Username: KSANcoFlyer [User Info]
Posted 2009-06-18 15:12:59 and read 32768 times.

thats a really cool picture of the plane being lifted out of the water, look at all the crap on it...eeew, i would not want to swim in that water.

Username: Golfradio [User Info]
Posted 2009-06-25 21:24:19 and read 32768 times.

Another facet to study can be factors like training which help in mitigating fatigue. An example is the AF358 accident in Toronto in the summer of 2005. The cabin crew, at the end of a long trans-continental flight, were able to overcome fatigue and evacuate the plane in under 2 minutes.

Username: Sih12sih [User Info]
Posted 2009-07-11 08:34:10 and read 32768 times.

i think the pilot had 2 be trained well and known his aircraft to save every 1 of the passengers surrvived

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-31 22:56:52 and read 32768 times.

Thats great!! cool pics and good articles!!

Username: CLT787 [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-08 17:28:56 and read 32768 times.

The pilot did an amazing job, many a pilot would not have made the landing!

Username: BSchlossberg [User Info]
Posted 2009-11-01 22:15:00 and read 32768 times.

Just a reminder, this miracle has happened before, which doesn't take away in the least, thanksgiving to God for the miracle and appreciation for the men and women of the flight crew. See [http://www.conservapedia.com/Water_Ditching] for other miracles.

Username: BSchlossberg [User Info]
Posted 2009-11-01 22:21:52 and read 32768 times.

For another listing of other miraces in comparison to the Miracle on the Hudson see http://www.conservapedia.com/Miracle_on_the_Hudson_and_KAL_007
as well as http://www.conservapedia.com/Water_Ditching

Username: Vapar8 [User Info]
Posted 2009-12-24 12:22:50 and read 32768 times.

You mean Usairways 1549

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