The “December Dilemma” is a term used to refer to the time of year when multiple holidays collide. For example, this year, Hannukah will occur from December 18th until December 26th, overlapping with Christmas Day (December 25th). Kwanzaa occurs between December 26th and January 1st, 2023, overlapping with the end of Hannukah as well as New Year’s Eve. This overlap means that more people may be traveling during the same week in December compared to other years when Hannukah falls earlier on the calendar, like it did in 2021 (November 28- December 6, 2021). Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year as well, with the federal observation on Monday, December 26th—the last night of Hannukah and the first day of Kwanzaa! Having these holidays nestled in a long weekend makes it more feasible for people to travel without taking vacation days.
Travel experts are anticipating a busy holiday travel season, with about half of Americans planning to visit relatives or go on vacation between November and January (1-3). What’s more, half of that traveling population is planning to get there by plane. Many Americans are planning to fly internationally as well despite coronavirus spikes in Europe and Asia. To make matters worse, the United States is still in the midst of a pilot staffing shortage (4). This year, with increased demand for travel occurring amidst ongoing airline staffing shortages and a possible winter wave of COVID in addition to overlapping holidays, December has a new dilemma—how do we make this work!?
The travel experts acknowledge this problem (1-3). “Delays and cancellations” are one of December 2022’s biggest predicted trends thanks to staffing shortages and COVID-related sick calls. Delays and cancellations don’t eliminate fatigue risk though. Aviation has strict standards for fatigue risk mitigation when designing a flight roster that includes prospective biomathematical modeling of fatigue, flight time limitations, and mandatory downtime for a pilot flying across multiple time zones. However, last-minute schedule changes create chaos that can unravel even the best-laid plans. Flight delays are known to contribute to crew member fatigue (5,6). Pilots and crew members may be stuck waiting around to fly. Waiting can be very fatiguing, especially emotionally. Crew members and passengers alike are apt to get cranky before they get where they need to go this holiday season. Cranky passengers will make the cabin crew’s jobs more difficult as well. Passengers’ bad behavior can create a fatigue risk.
Santa Claus himself actually wrote a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last Christmas detailing his Naughty and Nice list for airline passengers (7). He specifically calls out “people whose bad behavior puts air travel safety in jeopardy” as being on the Naughty List. Santa is a fictional figurehead who knows a lot about fatigue risk management. For one thing, he sees you when you’re sleeping and he knows when you’re awake. That’s my job in a nutshell. Santa Claus can also be considered a shift-working cargo pilot. He was the focus of a 2021 case study called “Seasonal night-work with extended hours and transmeridian travel: An analysis of global fatigue-related sleigh crash risk”(8). This whimsical editorial was written by well-respected circadian researchers and published in the Journal of Sleep Health. The authors obtained Santa’s duty schedule and package delivery route from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Santa tracker (https://www.noradsanta.org/en/) and used biomathematical modeling to predict fatigue risk. Fatigue-related sleigh crash risk in this silico (more like, in silly-o) case study was predicted to be highest over North America, where the package delivery route coincided with Santa’s window of circadian low (WOCL) (9). Their analysis did not address the potential workload fatigue due to navigating heavily-congested skies because of a U.S. holiday travel rush. Workload factors can be modeled in SAFTE-FAST. Mrs. Claus, if you’re reading this, maybe Mr. Claus would like a SAFTE-FAST license for Christmas this year.
Shameless product plugs aside, fatigue is a serious issue for aviation employees over the holidays. Travel blogs offer tips for passengers and the authors of the Santa Claus case study recommended he use napping and caffeine as effective countermeasures. No one seems to be offering advice for the airline workers though. Standard fatigue mitigation practices should still work, but some, like augmentation-- or staffing a flight with extra pilots-- might be hard to achieve during a pilot shortage. I tried looking up papers about holiday fatigue risk for commercial aviation but I could not find any objective analysis comparing flight schedules during holiday operations versus the rest of the year. Anecdotally, I have warned our SAFTE-FAST users against collecting data for a safety case during December because it will not be representative of normal operations. After writing this blog post though, I think I will add “a properly formatted .csv file with work and sleep data from November-January” to my holiday wish list. Perhaps next year, I can gift you with the results.