This blog post was updated January 26, 2017.
Much of the focus of impairments in transportation is placed on commercial truck drivers (and, with good reason, train conductors).
Fatigue-related concerns surrounding pilots don’t usually dominate headlines in the same way. This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with sleep deprivation among these transportation workers, regardless whether they are in the military, hauling cargo, or transporting people.
Pilots are probably more stringently regulated among all modes of transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced rules for pilot duty and rest requirements in 2011, and final versions for these became effective in 2014.
The Balance compared the old rules with the new ones in this October 31, 2016 summary. They also report that the FAA has launched mandatory update requirements for the Fatigue Risk Management Plans (FRMPs) that each airline must enforce, and has proposed a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS) option to help them meet their regulatory obligations.
Updated 1.26.17: On December 2, 2016, the FAA released an Advisory Circular (downloadable PDF, 24pp) which further specifies and defines ideas, language, and requirements in the FRMPs/FRMS.
In addition, March 2, 2015 brought new protocols from the FAA regarding the screening of pilots for one of the most common sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, which—when left untreated, or undertreated—is a major contributor to sleep deprivation in the workforce.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association provides this review and video detailing the history behind the development of these protocols (January 23, 2015). (For enlightenment about what these pilots think about these regulations, you can get a pretty good snapshot of attitudes in the comments section there.)
While this is encouraging news, and perhaps a model for other transportation system leaders to consider as they manage their own operator fatigue concerns, pilots still resist regulations.
Plane crashes related to pilot fatigue: a sample
On top of this, even with the best screening protocols in place, they can still be fatigued and accidents can still happen. Take a look:
- Perhaps the most notable fatigue-related plane crash of recent memory is the FlyDubai crash in Rostov-on-Don last March, which an anonymous whistleblower later confirmed was the result of pilots being “worked to death” (RT.com, March 22, 2016), with crews not being afforded adequate time for sleep readjustment between trips.
- The blog, One Mile at a Time, posits that exhausted flight crews are not just a FlyDubai problem, but one of global proportions, in their March 22, 2016 post, “Is It Fair To Single Out FlyDubai For Pilot Fatigue Issues?“
- On July 29, 2016, The Guardian leaked documents from dozens of FlyDubai pilots who complained of dangerous levels of fatigue. (You can read the leaked documents hereread the leaked documents here, as well as FlyDubai’s response.)
- Also last spring, Delta pilots were found to have fallen asleep on a flight from Germany to Kuwait, straying into Greek airspace. Greek fighter pilots intercepted the plane but could not establish contact.
- “It was only when shocked passengers alerted flight attendants to the fighter jets that surrounded the plane, that the pilots were roused as the crew banged on the cockpit door,” reported Aviation News & Updates (May 25, 2016).
- And there’s this report of European aviation from the Daily Mail (December 7, 2016): “Pilots admit flying while tired and UNWELL and say passengers’ safety is being put at risk because airlines aren’t taking fatigue seriously
Closer to home:
- An August 2015 crash of a private twin-engine plane near Houlton, ME was found to be the result of “the pilot’s acute fatigue” according to an investigation by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) cited in an article from Bangor Daily News (December 22, 2016).
- The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported on September 9, 2016 that the NTSB determined that the UPS cargo plan that crashed near Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport was the product of pilot fatigue.
- Last September, New York Senator Charles E. Schumer renewed his efforts to protect the critical aviation safety regulations outlined in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act, legislation he helped to pass in 2010, which could be at risk for losing or softening some of its key protections due to lobbying efforts within the aviation industry.
- The NTSB indicated pilot fatigue was partially to blame for the November 2015 Akron plane crash that killed all seven passengers and two pilots aboard (FOX8 Cleveland, October 28, 2016).
- NBC Nightly News‘ Brian Williams, reflecting on the “loss of 50 souls” in a February 2009 commuter plane crash near Buffalo, reports in this investigative broadcast about the startling differences between the pilots who fly small commuter planes and their peers who fly larger transcontinental jets.
Are pilots concerned?
Yes! And if not, they should be:
- Anam Parand’s chilling commentary in the December 7, 2016 edition of The Conversation (“Survey shows tired airline pilots scared of ‘sleepwalking their way to disaster“) drives home the point that pilot safety culture needs far more support than it’s getting.
- This study of over 450 pilots published in Sleep Science (April-June 2016) showed that more than a third of all pilots questioned admitted they had sleep complaints, with daytime sleepiness affecting nearly 60 percent and fatigue impacting 90 percent.
- Other research shows that pilots who experience a personality trait known as “dissociative absorption” are more likely to be sleep deprived and struggle more in their to return to full alertness than those without this trait.
- “Dissociative absorption is the tendency to involuntarily narrow one’s attention to the point where one is oblivious to the surroundings. It involves a temporary lack of reflective consciousness, which means that the individual may act automatically while imagining vividly, bringing about confusion between reality and fantasy.” Ben-Gurion University researchers, from the study published in Consciousness and Cognition (December 2, 2016).
- Even the now-famous “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed a disabled jetliner into the Hudson River in 2009, has asked for more awareness among policymakers regarding this problem.
- “Let me be very direct: Fatigue is a killer,” Sullenberger said before the Senate last April regarding legislation protecting resting periods for cargo plane pilots. “It’s a ruthless indiscriminate killer that our industry and our regulators have allowed to continue killing for way too long.” (Roll Call, April 12, 2016)