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When fatigue takes flight

When fatigue takes flight

April 18, 2012

With heightened security, full body scans, and additional baggage fees, flying the friendly skies can be stressful. And with so much on the mind of travelers these days, the last thought between double checking that you’ve packed enough underwear and removed all liquids from your carry on luggage – is how much sleep your pilot had the night before.

But the results of a recent poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation is putting safety officials on alert. The poll found that close to one in four pilots (23 percent) admitted that sleepiness has affected their job performance at least once a week, with an even more alarming one in five pilots (20 percent) admitting that their fatigue has led to serious errors or problems while on the job. In comparison, among non-transportation workers the rate of error due to fatigue or sleeplessness is about 17 percent.

The study also showed that half – or 50 percent – of pilots are not satisfied with the amount of sleep that they receive during a typical workday, compared to 42 percent of non-transportation workers.

In December of last year the Federal Aviation Administration announced a sweeping rule, overhauling commercial passenger airline pilot scheduling, requiring pilots receive adequate rest between shifts. According to the new rules pilots are now required to receive a minimum of 10 hours of rest between shifts, with each break consisting of at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, over the past 20 years there have been dozens of reported accidents and more than 250 fatalities, linked with pilot fatigue. One of these close calls include an incident in February 2008, when pilots of a go! airlines flight out of Honolulu admitted to falling asleep and overshooting its destination, Hilo, Hawaii, with 40 passengers and three crew members aboard.

According to reports, the pilots ceased responding to air traffic control communications roughly halfway through their flight. Despite several attempts to make contact, there was an 18-minute gap when no contact was made, and instead of landing at Hilo as scheduled, Flight 1002 passed over the airport and continued nearly 30 miles past its destination over the open ocean.

The report notes the pilots were under stress, and though he had never fallen asleep before, the 53-year-old pilot admitted to regularly napping while in flight. Mesa Air Group, which owns go! Airlines, fired both pilots after the incident.

The go! airlines incident took place almost a year to the day, before the Continental 3407 crash, on February 12, 2009. Forty nine passengers and crew on board and one person on the ground were killed when the plane crashed. Reports later determined that both pilots were sleep-deprived at the time of the crash.

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