Ethiopian Airlines has suspended the crew of a flight on which both pilots reportedly fell asleep and missed their landing window in Addis Ababa.
The plane eventually landed safely, but experts said the incident raised questions about pilot fatigue on the airline, the largest air carrier in Africa.
The Aviation Herald, a news website for the aviation industry, reported Thursday that the two pilots were flying a Boeing 737 from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to Addis Ababa, apparently on Monday. “After overflying [the runway] … the autopilot disconnected, the disconnect wailer woke the crew up, who then maneuvered the aircraft for a safe landing,” the report said.
Ethiopian Airlines said Friday that the crew had been "removed from operation pending further investigation. Appropriate corrective action will be taken based on the outcome of the investigation. Safety has always been and will continue to be our first priority.”
The statement did not say whether the pilots had been sleeping.
Experts said the incident could have been a result of the airline overworking the pilots or other external factors.
Hassan Shahidi of the Flight Safety Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization, told VOA that pilot fatigue "would certainly be investigated in terms of exactly how many hours they were flying and potentially whether fatigue or scheduling may have played a role in this, but it is, at the end of the day, the responsibility of the crew if they are fatigued or if they are tired, to report that they’re tired.”
US, EU regulations
Airlines that fly in and out of the U.S. and European Union, as Ethiopian Airlines does, are bound by safety rules set by regulatory bodies in those jurisdictions. Failure to meet those rules means airlines can be banned from flying to U.S. and EU destinations.
The EU aviation regulator, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told VOA via email that it was aware of the incident.
It said the agency evaluates information from many sources as part of its continuous monitoring of non-EU air carriers “and takes action as appropriate to ensure operations meet our safety expectations.”
The agency said it does not comment on individual cases.
Experts said a single incident like this was unlikely to jeopardize an airline's ability to fly to the U.S. and EU.
Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s largest carrier and, according to experts, has a good safety record. Sean Mendis, a former regional airline manager in Africa, said, “I would not hesitate to fly on Ethiopian myself. I was on two Ethiopian Airlines flights this week already. I’ve got another one booked for the next few weeks. And, you know, Ethiopian does remain one of the safest airlines in Africa and, indeed, in the world.”
The outcome of the investigation was expected to come quickly, as Ethiopian Airlines attempts to dispel passenger concerns over safety.