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ITA pilots become unresponsive on flight to Italy
On April 30, 2022, ITA Airways flight AZ609 operated from New York (JFK) to Rome (FCO) with an Airbus A330-200 that had the registration code EI-EJP. The flight operated as normal, until reaching French airspace.
In the early morning hours of May 1, Marseille air traffic control tried to communicate with the pilots of AZ609, but there was no response. It’s normal for air traffic controllers to consistently communicate with pilots, and any significant lapse in communication is obviously of concern.
For what it’s worth, there were two pilots, and one pilot was in “controlled rest” during this time, whereby a pilot is allowed to sleep briefly in the cockpit. In other words, there was really only one pilot who was supposed to be awake at the controls.
Controllers first tried to make several calls to the pilots, which went unanswered. The controllers then reached out to the airline, who tried to send a message to the pilots via ACARS (think of it like a texting system for pilots). After not getting a response there either, French military fighter jets were deployed at 3:56AM, to do a wellness check on the plane and look into the cockpit.
Finally at 4:02AM the pilots once again became responsive, and the situation ended.
What ITA’s investigation revealed
Following the incident, ITA Airways conducted a thorough investigation into what happened. As mentioned above, the first officer was allowed to be briefly napping, and that means the captain should’ve been extra attentive.
ITA suspected that the captain had fallen asleep, but the captain denied that he did. Rather he claimed that there were issues with the plane’s communication systems. However, there were allegedly inconsistencies in his stories, and some equipment from the plane was also inspected, but no issues were found.
As a result of ITA’s investigation, the decision was made to sack the captain. The airline claims that safety is the top priority, and that passengers weren’t at risk during the incident (which is sort of true in the sense that the autopilot can fly the plane, but also not true, because the whole reason we need pilots is to respond in a split second to any issues that arise).
I do find it interesting that ITA doesn’t have a relief pilot on this route. On US airlines, flights of over eight hours have at least three pilots, to always allow one pilot to rest. Meanwhile this flight is blocked at 8hr35min eastbound and 9hr45min westbound, yet they only have two pilots. That’s quite a long flight without proper rest (aside from briefly snoozing in the cockpit).
An ITA Airways captain has been terminated after both pilots allegedly fell asleep on a New York to Rome flight at the end of April. This became an issue when pilots stopped responding to calls from air traffic controllers while in French airspace, leading to fighter jets being deployed.
This was at a time when the first officer was allowed to rest, so it’s on the captain for not being responsive. The captain claimed he wasn’t asleep, but rather that there were issues with the plane’s communications systems. However, an investigation didn’t find any faults there.
What do you make of this ITA incident?