Do pilots get enough sleep?
In confidential safety memos, pilots recount fatigue-related incidents.
Nobody wants a tired pilot flying a fully loaded 747 jumbo jet.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."