The International Civil Aviation Organization introduced Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) in 2011, making it an important year for aviation safety. Described as a data-driven means of monitoring and managing fatigue-related safety risks, FRMS’s importance is hard to overstate. Prior to the introduction of FRMS, fatigue was managed through regulatory limits on work duration alone. Factors such as the quantity and quality of rest offered by specific work schedules were not considered. However, as science advanced, the importance of these considerations became increasingly clear. Researchers showed that when it came to alertness in the cockpit, the conditions surrounding when pilots flew mattered as much as how long that they flew for. Their findings facilitated a major change in how fatigue was managed. FRMS leverages much of this knowledge.

Managing fatigue can however, be a costly affair. For example, when the U.S. government mandated that certain FRMS principles be factored into existing scheduling practices, airlines had to hire more crew and place extra staff on reserve. All told, upwards of $300 million in added expenditure was considered necessary to comply with the new rule. That may be money well spent to those who equate sound scheduling with improved safety. The Air Line Pilot’s Association for example, hailed the new rule as, “a significant victory for safety and the travelling public.” Proving so however, is difficult given the rarity of accidents. The number of commercial flights flown in the year before the rule went into effect was the highest on record. Yet the global accident rate that same year was the lowest in recorded history. Given this reality, is fatigue management worth the investment?

Fatigue is almost universally treated as a safety hazard. Put simply, more fatigue means less safe and less fatigue means more safe. Initiatives like FRMS are ‘sold’ on this premise. But with accidents at an all time low, such reasoning could be challenged by airlines seeking measurable benefits for dollars spent. Who could blame them? Despite soaring air travel demand, high operating costs and intense competition keep profit margins both low—a situation International Air Transport Association Director General Tony Tyler points out is “fragile rather than sustainable.”

Selling initiatives like FRMS in this climate means demonstrating benefits beyond safety alone. One means of doing so is by relating fatigue management to company profitability. This approach has seen previous success in other industries. For example, when American industrialist Henry Ford scaled back his employees’ labor burden, productivity rose and profits soared. A century later, some Swedish companies are doing the same, hoping to replicate Ford’s success. Managing fatigue can also protect balance sheets by reducing staff turnover. According to a 2014 study by Oxford Economics and insurance giant Unum, the cost of replacing an employee in the U.K.  averages $45,000 (£30,614). This figure includes agency fees, advertising, and wages paid to new hires before they reach the desired level of job proficiency. All told, businesses nationwide stand to save at least $6 billion (£4.13 billion) billion annually if turnover were reduced.

Whether or not managing fatigue on the flight deck can deliver similar savings to airlines, and ultimately passengers, is an open question. Studies addressing the topic are lacking. As carrier competition intensifies and low accident rates “persist,” aviation scientists must be challenged to show the fiscal benefits of staying alert. Passengers would be the greatest beneficiaries of their success.