Pilot Fatigue

We passengers have a problem. We don’t want our pilots falling asleep on the job. Behind that locked cockpit door, there’s a real danger that our pilots might well be dozing off. Like Howard Beale, in the movie NETWORK, we’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value! … I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

Apparently aviation authorities are taking notice of the sleepy pilot phenomenon.

In a September 2009 speech, the Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Raymond Benjamin raised the critical issue of pilot fatigue. The ICAO is coming out with new provisions governing flight times, duty times and rest periods for pilots which are applicable now, in November 2009. Fatigue risk management systems to augment new fatigue provisions are in development. I wonder if this includes things like alarms going off at random times during a flight, random check-ins or shrill-voiced stewards armed with tasers knocking on the cockpit door every fifteen minutes asking “Are you guys still awake?”

Ever since the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo that killed all 50 people onboard, the United States had been developing more stringent standards; and this has been stepped up even more since the recent occurrence of pilots who overshot their destination by 150 miles–although both pilots in this incident claimed to be distracted and not asleep. American regulations currently allow a maximum of 16 hours on duty–but that figure is currently being reassessed by the FAA.

Canadian pilots are looking toward the Canadian Transportation Safety Board to also up their standards, which they have not yet done, even though the Canadian Transportation Safety Board recently reported about a pilot: “Fatigue likely resulted in a degradation of his concentration” in reference to a 2005 incident where a pilot nodded off and allowed the plane to slow nearly to a stall. Although a dozen Canadian fatigue incidents have been connected to 23 deaths, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board claims that their current regulations are “adequate.” The European Union allows a maximum of 13 hours. Canadian regulations allow a crew to be on duty for 14 hours in 24), night work, irregular start times, routes that cross several time zones and multiple takeoffs and landings.

Some of the hardest work to deal with is called continuous or stand-up duty, which is when pilots handle a late evening flight, stay overnight and fly the turnaround leg–or the timing of this type of flight which forces irregular daylight hours to be the only time a pilot can sleep. Turnaround times don’t exactly respect human biorhythms.

Pilots might be dropping off to sleep while they’re flying, but the rest of us look at the statistics and fly white-knuckled with our hearts in our throats. With worries about everything from plane maintenance, to lax air traffic control, from crowded flight corridors to random part failure, the least we passengers can do is bring alarm clocks, our souped-up air horns, and plenty of high-test Starbucks emergency caffeine to keep our pilots awake, alert and on the mark.

Originally Posted by George Hatcher Saturday, November 21, 2009