Skip to content

Passenger Plane Pilots Fall Asleep in Middle of Flight and Fly Past Airport 

Pilot fatigue is a common issue.

Reeling from a summer of delays, cancellations, and widespread lost luggage, this was a story the airline industry didn't need. This week, two pilots of a passenger aircraft apparently fell asleep in the middle of a flight. They managed to land the plane without injuries, but the incident has drawn renewed spotlight to a common and growing problem: Pilot fatigue. Read on to find out what happened and why a pilot's group says fatigue is a "number-one safety threat."

Pilots Flew Past Airport

The view from the passenger aircraft cockpit

On Aug. 15, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET343 was en route from Khartoum to Addis Ababa. But the pilots of the Boeing 737 didn't begin their descent to Bole Airport on schedule, ultimately flying over the airport at 37,000 feet, the Aviation Herald reported.

Tower Found Pilots Non-Responsive

Female and Male Air Traffic Controllers with Headsets Talk in Airport Tower. Office Room is Full of Desktop Computer Displays with Navigation Screens, Airplane Departure and Arrival Data for the Team.

Air traffic controllers tried to contact the pilots several times, but were unsuccessful. Eventually, the autopilot disconnected and an alarm sounded, waking the pair. Radar shows the plane turning around and making a landing attempt—25 minutes later than scheduled.

"Deeply Concerning Incident," Expert Says

Map showing flight missing airport

Aviation expert Alex Macheras tweeted: "Deeply concerning incident at Africa's largest airline — Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 #ET343 was still at cruising altitude of 37,000ft by the time it reached destination Addis Ababa. Why hadn't it started to descend for landing? Both pilots were asleep."

"Pilot fatigue is nothing new, and continues to pose one of the most significant threats to air safety—internationally," he wrote. "A timely reminder that pilot fatigue is widespread, an issue across the airline spectrum, sometimes systematic, and poses a major threat to air safety."

Pilots Suspended, Airline Says

Professional airline pilot hat and id holder with epaulets and sun glasses laying on log book and flight plan.

On Friday, Ethiopian Airlines said the plane "temporarily lost communication with Addis Ababa Air Traffic Control" but landed safely after contact was restored. 

"The concerned crew have been removed from operation pending further investigation," the airline said. "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."

Social Media Reactions Varied

Ethiopian, Boeing 777, taking off from Dublin airport.

Some social media users found comedy in the incident; others found it less amusing.

"When they said nonstop flight they really meant nonstop!" said Twitter user @KHusson.

"I'm sure suspending the pilots, who were probably forced to work far too many hours in a row without rest, will solve this systemic problem," wrote @ExpedientFalcon. 

"Ex controller here, trust me when I tell you it's happened here as well," said @tkloos.

"Note to self: Avoid flights with a 3:30 am departure time," said @RGeoffBaker.

Pilot Fatigue a Common Issue

Portrait of sleepy and overworked pilot sitting in airport

This near-miss comes just months after CNN reported in April that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), warned that "Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines' number-one safety threat." Frequent cancellations because of severe weather, a pilot shortage caused partly by retirements during the pandemic, and a rebounding demand for air travel have stretched flight crews thin. 

The SWAPA said the number of pilots who were unable to wrok because of exhaustion skyrocketed 600 percent in October 2021, and hit "another staggering 330 per cent increase" in March of this year.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a seasoned writer and editor with a passion for helping people make life-improving decisions. Read more
Filed Under