Sleeping or Surfing at 10,000 feet

Can’t phone while driving, can’t text while driving, can’t drink while driving. What next? For pilots, don’t surf while flying. No federal rules specifically ban pilots’ use of laptops or other personal electronic devices above 10,000 feet, but Delta does have just such a policy.

I know the Internet can be engrossing. I’ve logged on for one minute and looked up 2 or 3 hours later, but I wasn’t driving—or flying a plane—when I did it.

Delta has suspended Richard Cole and Timothy Cheney, the pilots who overshot their destination by 150 miles.

Would it have been better if they’d been sleeping?

You may be surprised that in some places, it is allowed for pilots to sleep while flying. Pilot Antonio De Biasi provided me this little tidbit of information:

International carriers including former Varig, Air France, British Airways and Qantas allow pilots to nap, but sleeping while flying is prohibited at U.S. airlines by the FAA. Just last month, the Air Transport Association again pressed the FAA to allow controlled cockpit napping, citing NASA research that found a mid-flight snooze significantly reduces the risks of overall pilot fatigue.

The NASA study begun in 1989 and allowed one group of pilots flying across the Pacific to take a 25-minute nap while their co-pilots flew the planes, while a control group was required to remain awake for the entire flight. Those without the naps nodded off five times as much – including while on the approach to the airport – as those who got some sleep.

What is scary to me is the finding that pilots without naps nodded off five times as frequently as those who slept. If this was a blind study, those same ratios may be true for all pilots flying across the Pacific. Pilots nodding off may not be that unusual. That’s disturbing enough for me to want to bring an air horn on my next flight, just to honk it at regular intervals or whenever the captain is not a chatty sort.

Sleeping and surfing on the job: neither are illegal, at least, not yet, anyway.

And I am sure that I’m not the only passenger who wants the only law I want my pilots breaking to be the law of gravity.

Originally Posted by George Hatcher Wednesday, October 28, 2009