South African Airways Research


As part of the validation of their first ultra-long range service, South African Airways asked the Sleep/Wake Research Centre to monitor the sleep and fatigue of flight and cabin crew on their Johannesburg-New York trip.

Flight Crew Research

Standard measures were used to monitor the sleep and fatigue of 52 flight crew (actigraphy and sleep diaries, with Samn-Perelli fatigue ratings, Karolinska Sleepiness Scale ratings, and 5-minute psychomotor vigilance performance tests at key times across flights).

Findings include that the large majority of crewmembers prepared for the evening departure from Johannesburg by taking a nap. During the long outbound flight during Johannesburg night time crewmembers averaged 4 hours of sleep. Having the recommended minimum of 4 local nights off duty following a ULR trip appeared to be sufficient for recovery.

Cabin Crew Research

Approaches to fatigue management for cabin crew are almost exclusively based on research and systems developed for flight crew. However, there are some important differences between the front and the back of the aircraft.

  • The main fatigue mitigation strategy for very long flights is to provide in-flight breaks and crew rest facilities for sleep. However, because all cabin crew have to be awake for meal services, they have less time available for inflight rest than flight crew.
  • In many countries, the regulatory requirements for on-board rest facilities are less rigorous for cabin crew than for flight crew.
  • The type of work and distribution of workload across flights is different for cabin crew and flight crew.
  • Cabin crew often have shorter layovers between flights than flight crew working the same flights.
  • Cabin crews’ views on fatigue and their strategies for mitigating it, have seldom been sought.
  • Cabin crew include a much higher proportion of women than flight crew.

To address the lack of research with cabin crew, Margo van den Berg is leading two studies in collaboration with South African Airways: the companion study to the flight crew study on the Johannesburg-New York trip, and a focus group study to elicit the views of cabin crew members on these issues. These studies form part of her PhD research.

Findings from the field study include that cabin crew reported feeling more fatigued and sleepy and had poorer performance on the shorter return flight than on the longer outbound flight, on which they were able to sleep longer than on the inbound flight. Sleep loss may also have built up over the trip, resulting in higher levels of fatigue on the return flight. At home cabin crew were found to get less sleep on average than flight crew scheduled on the same trip, which could be due to differences in responsibilities at home.


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