A pilot working for Italy’s state-run airline, ITA, has been fired for allegedly falling asleep at the controls during a flight from New York to Rome last month.
The co-pilot of the flight, it says, was taking “controlled rest” at the time, as is allowed by most airlines, but the captain of the flight was also unreachable by air traffic control for just over 10 minutes, with the plane cruising on autopilot.
As the plane was flying over France, the communications blackout sparked a terror alert, with French air traffic control informing their Italian counterparts that the aircraft may have been highjacked.
Though the pilot who was not taking approved rest denies he fell asleep, he has been sacked by the airline, which has not provided an explanation as to why he was unreachable in the cockpit.
Italian politician Michele Anzaldi took to Twitter to apologise for the incident on the state-run airline. “What happened on the ITA flight from New York, where both pilots fell asleep, is very grave,” he said. “The company has a duty to guarantee that this will never happen again and must apologise to the passengers.”
”Controlled rest” rules dictate that one of two pilots may take some sleep in the cockpit for around 10-40 minutes on a long-haul flight, while the aircraft is cruising, to remain rested and competent on a long shift. Pilots must agree to this beforehand, and cabin crew are informed that one pilot is taking some rest.
Flight data shows that flight AZ609 did not lose altitude or veer from its intended route during the radio silence from the pilots. ITA launched in October 2021, replacing defunct Italian flag-carrier Alitalia, ending a 74-year business history that was marred in recent years by a series of financial crises. The run-up to Alitalia’s formal demise was marked by protests and strikes as it emerged that the much smaller ITA Airways would only be hiring around a quarter of Alitalia’s more than 10,000 employees.
An ITA statement confirmed that the “immediate removal” of the pilot had taken place. Though it did not confirm that the captain had been found to have fallen asleep during the shift, it acknowledged that he “did not comply with the procedures in force”. The airline said: “For flight AZ609 on 30 April from New York JFK to Rome Fiumicino, ITA Airways initiated and concluded an internal investigation procedure.
“The purpose of this internal investigation was to determine the incidents relating to the momentary loss of radio communication between the cockpit and the air traffic control offices, particularly during the overflight of French airspace.
“This investigation led to the identification of a behavior of the Captain that did not comply with the procedures in force both during the flight and once landed, i.e. a professional conduct that was not consistent with the behavioral and working rules dictated by the Company, which the staff is required to follow strictly, and above all of strong inconsistencies between the statements made by the Captain and the outcome of the internal investigations.
“In light of this, the Company has adopted a disciplinary measure that has led to the immediate removal of the resource from the ITA Airways workforce, as the relationship of trust in the working environment had been broken.” The airline added that there was “no evidence of any external flight activity” and reiterated that the safety of the flight was not compromised.