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Insta-CoGo: Drowsy Pilots in the Cockpit?

John Deiner

Let's file this one under "things you'd probably rather not know."

According to a report in USA Today, "Two airline pilots fell asleep while cruising over Hawaii last February, flying past their destination toward open ocean for 18 minutes before waking up and returning for a safe landing." The incident was revealed by the National Transportation Safety Board, which said it highlights the problem of pilots spending too many hours in the cockpit.

According to the story, which cited NTSB records, crashes linked to fatigue have killed 249 people since 1997. Currently, pilots are allowed to work 16 hours a day, including up to eight hours behind the controls. The agency is trying to rewrite the rules regarding the number of hours a pilot can work, but the airlines and pilot groups have been fighting it.

Let's review: a 16-hour workday. Piloting a plane for half the time. With you and me in it. You ever drive eight hours after being at behind a desk for eight hours? Isn't easy, is it?

According to the story, "The two pilots had been flying together for three arduous days. . . . Since the incident, the captain had been diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea . . .Apnea causes people to repeatedly wake up during the night and has been linked to poor work performance and accidents."

So the pilot has apnea. Why doesn't that make me feel better? Maybe I'll start carrying a drumset on board to keep the pilots awake . . . if I can get it through security.

(Coming and Going, or CoGo, is the Travel section's weekly consumer column. For a look at last week's column, click here.)

By John Deiner |  June 11, 2008; 10:24 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Insta-CoGo , John Deiner
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Another good reason to take an early flight, instead of one later in the day. I would think fatigue would be even worse if a trip was on the first day of flying, especially if the pilot has to commute to his hub.
Of course the pilots would bulk, the new rules would affect their pay.

Posted by: rja112 | June 11, 2008 12:51 PM

As a 10 year airline Captain I feel I must clarify the quote "The agency is trying to rewrite the rules regarding the number of hours a pilot can work, but the airlines and pilot groups have been fighting it." The first part about the airlines fighting it is absolutely correct as it would cost them more money. But the part about pilot groups fighting it is dead wrong and I don't know where the writer came up with this. Pilot groups are fighting hard to get the duty and flight limitations reduced in order to enhance safety. Further his statement "Currently, pilots are allowed to work 16 hours a day, including up to eight hours behind the controls." is half true. The 16 hour duty limit is firm, but the 8 hour flight time limit is the most you can be SCHEDULED for at the start of the day, but at the end of the day you may have been at the controls 11 hours or more due to delays (weather, maintenance, etc)


Posted by: Anonymous | June 11, 2008 1:56 PM

Hey, thanks for the clarification on both counts. (11 hours? Wow.) As far as the info on pilot groups, the story I cited says, "The NTSB has been calling for reform of pilot work rules for decades. Several attempts to rewrite pilot work rules have failed in the face of opposition from airlines and pilot groups."

Posted by: John Deiner | June 11, 2008 2:08 PM

Too much worrying, aren't people paranoid enough about flying? Look at the numbers and compare to the number of fatalities on the highways where fatigue is a contributing issue. (hint, it's an order of magnitude greater. in science, that is called a Big Difference)

How about we start trying to be rational about things and not pandering to the urge to freak out at everything whether there's reason to freak out or not?

Posted by: Too Much Worry | June 11, 2008 4:48 PM

How about the contrrolers who tell these guys where to go and how to get there. What are their hours and restrictions??

Posted by: warren rasmussen | June 18, 2008 12:07 PM

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