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Do pilots get enough sleep?

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

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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.

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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."