Do pilots get enough sleep?

In confidential safety memos, pilots recount fatigue-related incidents.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Off the plane: A crew (l.) goes down an escalator at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. According to regulations, for every 24 hours, a pilot must have at least eight consecutive hours when he or she was not in the cockpit.
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Nobody wants a tired pilot flying a fully loaded 747 jumbo jet.

The airlines and Federal Aviation Administration insist that no pilots are – at least, none who are tired enough to jeopardize safety.

Yet pilots say they're seeing "an alarming increase" in complaints about fatigue, one that could have disastrous consequences.

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In a series of confidential safety memos, obtained by the Monitor and filed as part of a system to report aviation problems, pilots list a range of fatigue-related issues – from using the wrong taxiways to flying at the wrong altitude. One pilot even worries his airline is now at risk of losing a plane.

As a result, the Air Line Pilots Association, America's largest pilots union, has created a blue- ribbon commission to document the incidents in the safety memos and report additional fatigue-related concerns. The commission will give a report to Congress and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Its goal is to get the FAA to revise the regulations that determine if and when it's safe for a pilot to fly. They were first put into effect in the 1940s, when there were no valid scientific studies documenting the importance of sleep patterns, circadian rhythms (the changing 24-hour sleep cycle), or the effects of fatigue, which scientists have found to be debilitating.

Indeed, the NTSB, America's transportation-safety watchdog, has urged the FAA to address the problem since the 1990s, when it first named pilot fatigue as one of its top "most wanted safety fixes."

It remains on that list today, with the FAA's response noted as "unacceptable" because the current rules are unscientific and were put into effect when there were only a few highly regulated airlines that had far fewer flights. Technology wasn't as advanced, and there was nowhere near the number of diversions, cancellations, and air-traffic control problems that pilots routinely encounter today.

"All of that creates stress and strain and more fatigue," says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, aviation consultants based in Evergreen, Colo. "The environment that they're flying in is very different than it was even 10 years ago. The world has changed, and so we have to rethink this as well."

The FAA is confident that its current rules provide for a safe aviation system. It's "not seeing trends or hearing safety concerns from the industry about flight time and rest," according to FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

The airlines, too, insist the system is safe. They note that creating a safety hazard by overworking pilots is not in any airline's interest.

They also point out that in the past, pilots have raised the fatigue issue prior to contract negotiations. Most airlines will be negotiating contracts between the end of this year and 2010.

"We don't think there is conclusive scientific evidence that the amount of hours currently being flown by pilots contributes to fatigue and safety issues," says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major carriers.

But the confidential safety reports, which concerned pilots gave to the Monitor, list a series of potentially dangerous fatigue-related incidents from the last half of 2007. They range from failure to level off at assigned altitude to inadvertent taxiing onto active runways to actually falling asleep at the flight controls. In one report, a captain who accidentally crossed onto an active runway wrote that his copilot tried to warn him, but he "was tired and didn't listen."

The memos come from the Aviation Safety Reporting System, which is a joint NASA/FAA program allowing pilots to report problems anonymously, as well as the internal safety awareness programs of several airlines. The idea is to identify safety problems and address them.

FAA regulations currently forbid pilots from being at the controls of an airplane for more than 30 hours every seven days, 100 hours a month, and a total of 1,000 hours a year. For every 24 hours, a pilot must be able to "look back" and see at least eight consecutive hours when he or she was not in the cockpit.

The airlines call that eight hours of "rest," but pilots note that it includes the time it takes to travel to a hotel, eat, get ready for bed, sleep, and then get back to the airport. Even the FAA acknowledges that pilots may get only about four or five hours of sleep during that eight-hour period to prepare them for what can be as long as a 16-hour day of flying.

Pilots say they're also required at times to fly a night shift for a day or two, then are switched over to a day schedule. They're also called in the middle of the night if the airline needs to change their schedule. The potential effects of these practices concern the NTSB.

"The regulations should not be based so much on X number of hours. They should take into account when somebody gets up at 4 in the morning, or if someone goes to work at midnight or flies a red-eye," says Capt. Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the NTSB, who is also a former pilot. "They should be scientifically based on research of circadian rhythms, sleep, and rest requirements."

The airlines note that many carriers have labor contracts that call for fewer flying hours than the maximums mandated by the FAA. For instance, the union contract for pilots at American Airlines requires that they fly only 78 hours a month, with the option to fly five more. Such contracts were fairly common before the growth of nonunion, low-cost carriers in the past decade. Then there was 9/11, which helped create an unprecedented economic crisis in aviation. Record layoffs and a series of bankruptcies followed.

Now, pilots at carriers like JetBlue fly the FAA's 100-hour monthly maximum. At United, the maximum flying hours are between 89 and 95 a month, depending on the kind of plane the pilot flies.

"Right now, airlines are placing money, productivity – how much work can you get out of a pilot – ahead of safety and having well-rested, nonfatigued pilots at the controls of your airplane," says Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

The airlines deny that. Speaking only on background, they also say the pilots are only raising the fatigue issue as a negotiating tactic for upcoming contract negotiations, now that the airlines are again profitable.

"This is an opportunity for unions to do what they've done for years to negotiate for more money," says an industry insider who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the situation with pilots. "If you look at the trends, they always bring up fatigue when contracts are open for negotiations."

The pilots deny that. They counter that the FAA tried to revise the sleep and rest regulations from the mid-1990s to 2001. That was not done, according to Ms. Duquette of the FAA, because it couldn't reach an agreement that was acceptable to the airlines and the unions.

"While FAA's past efforts to change the regulations met resistance, the agency is confident that the rules provide for a safe aviation system," she says. "But given the changes in the industry, and some types of flights, particularly the ultra-long-range ones, we have given the airlines some flexibility with how they schedule their crews as long as they can present data [that show it won't increase any safety risks.]"

That does not satisfy the NTSB, which wants the FAA's flight-duty rules brought into line with today's science and more-intense flying environment.

"We just want to keep the pressure on," says Captain Sumwalt. "We're not really interested in why it's not being done. We just want it to be done."

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