Ethiopian Airlines suspends pilots amid claims they slept mid-air

Ethiopian Airlines plane

An Ethiopian Airlines plane. 

Photo credit: File

Two Ethiopian Airlines pilots that arrived at their destination while still cruising at more than 30,000 feet in the air have been suspended by the carrier. 

This is according to an airline official, who said they were suspended to pave way for investigations after their flight temporarily lost communication with Addis Ababa Air Traffic Control on Tuesday, August 15.

"The flight later landed safely after communication was restored. The concerned crew have been removed from operations pending further investigation. 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,” the statement from Ethiopian Airlines read in part.

The dispatch from the airline, however, did not touch on reports that the pilots had allegedly fallen asleep mid-air. 

The Aviation Herald reported that Flight 343, a Boeing 737-800 that was meant to begin descent to Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, overshot its destination. It reported that alerts were raised when the plane approached the international airport on August 15 but had not started to descend. 

The autopilot system reportedly kept the plane cruising at 37,000 feet (11,200m).  

Data from the aviation surveillance system ADS-B confirmed the incident, showing that the aircraft had overflown the runway, but then managed to make another approach and landed safely.

"[Air traffic control] tried to contact the crew numerous times without success," the Aviation Herald reported, adding that after overflying the runway at 37,000 feet, the autopilot disconnected, setting off an alarm that caused the pilots to wake up.

According to Skybrary, an online repository for air safety knowledge, a modern airliner such as a Boeing 777 will start descending from its cruising altitude and slowing its cruising speed when it is about 160 kilometres away from the airport. The goal is to gradually reduce height and speed so that the aircraft arrives at the runway at a safe speed for landing. 

Air traffic control then directs the plane towards the airport by issuing a series of instructions until the aircraft approaches the runway.

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