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Qatar Airways staff suffering from life-threatening levels of fatigue, says new report

Airline employees have been wary of speaking up about working conditions that endanger both staff and passengers
Qatar Airways has laid off thousands of staff leading to excess flying hours for the remaining crew, a report found (Reuters)

Qatar Airways staff suffer from poor and potentially dangerous working conditions following a wave of layoffs, but are afraid to speak out both publicly and privately about their problems, according to a new investigation.

Testimony from crew members to the Thompson Reuters Foundation reveals that fatigue from being overworked and underpaid is risking the safety of both staff and passengers.

'You can't do anything. Your body is just screaming for rest. You feel the pain inside of your chest, and you're unable to keep your eyes open'

- Qatar Airlines pilot

However, with the threat of reprisal and redundancy hanging over their heads - particularly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic - few have attempted to complain about their problems to management, and those that did were routinely ignored.

"I fell asleep during the descent with 400 passengers on board," said one pilot, referred to pseudonymously as Erik, of a 20-hour flight that he eventually landed safely at the carrier's Doha base.

"You can't do anything. Your body is just screaming for rest. You feel the pain inside of your chest, and you're unable to keep your eyes open."

He added, however, that he "never filled out a fatigue report because I don't want to be in the spotlight."

Middle East Eye has approached Qatar Airways for comment on the claims.

Company pressure

In 2020, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Qatar Airways announced it would be laying off a fifth of its workforce as global demand for travel plummeted, and cut staff down a further 27 percent in 2021, leaving the company with a staff of 36,700.

The reduction in staff numbers has meant extra work for those kept on.

Pilots said that to manage new flights with smaller crews, the airline was under-counting work hours to maximise operated flights while technically playing by the rules.

A flight crew member's "inactive" period has no bearing on the downtime he or she earns, according to a copy of the airline's operations manual seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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As a result, much of a long-haul flight may be deemed inactive, even if a pilot is on standby and backing up colleagues.

The manual states that for fatigue mitigation, "in-flight rest does not count as flight time", straying from a standard calculation used by most civil aviation authorities.

"They count the hours in a different way. Not so long ago I was the 'third pilot' on duty – my duty was monitoring the pilots in the front, so I was one hundred percent active," Erik said.

"The flight time was one hour and 33 minutes, but the counted time was only three minutes. That's what went towards my flying limit," he said.

Two fellow first officers logged in-flight hours for the first two weeks of January that exceeded 115 hours, above the 28-day limit of 100 hours listed in the airline's own manual.

One first officer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he had filed eight fatigue reports after he recently fell asleep on more than a dozen flights.

Three of the reports were dismissed outright while one approved request got him 24 hours of rest in the Qatari capital Doha before the airline scheduled him on a 23-hour turnaround flight to East Asia.

Another two crew members said they had had all but one of the fatigue reports they submitted ignored.

Concerns over World Cup

The new investigation comes just months before Qatar is set to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, of which Qatar Airways is the lead sponsor and expected to be the main choice for transporting players and fans.

The Gulf state's hosting of the sporting event has already been highly controversial with concerns raised about corruption, safety for LGBT people and the toll inflicted on the migrant workers who have been working on construction for the event.

Revelations about the risk posed by overworked Qatar Airways staff are likely to further stoke concerns about the competition.

"This is obviously a huge health and safety issue for the pilots themselves - and the people they're flying," said Isobel Archer of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, speaking to Thompson Reuters Foundation.