Trouble in the Air
Holes blow through the tops of airplanes. Cracks appear in the fuselages. Air traffic controllers nod off while the planes are flying – at the main airport for Congress.
It’s not been a good time for air travel. And there’s more trouble – pilots involuntarily are falling asleep in the air. It’s time to let them – under controlled conditions.
Last year a flight between Copenhagen and Stockholm caused consternation. The co-pilot had gone to the bathroom. When he returned could not get through the armored door to the cockpit.
His pilot was asleep.
The copilot kept banging on the door. Finally he managed to get in. His pilot finally “awoke,” but remained “disoriented” for quite some time.
The pilot’s problem – lack of sleep. It’s a common problem in the air.
Many pilots have been falling asleep in the cockpit of late. One Northwest flight that “overshot” the runway for 150 miles was felt to be the result of both pilots falling asleep. Another recent accident when a flight between Atlantic City and Minnesota crashed at the runway. Both pilots were killed. One was found to have the short acting sleeping pill ambien (zolpidem) in his blood, unprescribed (he probably got it from his fiancée.) The other pilot had been known to sleep for as long as 15 hours a day.
Now the National Transportation Safety Board, with sleep researcher Mark Rosekind recently added to its board, is suggesting that pilots be allowed sleeping pills before flights “under a physician’s care.” There’s lot more to be done.
Reasons Pilots Fall Asleep
- Crazy schedules. Just as with medical interns and residents, pilots are shift workers who are expected to work many evening and night hours. Though pilots have relatively clear work rules regarding sleep, adding jet lag and commutes from home to airport means they often fall asleep when flying, even if the episodes are brief. Other reasons for sometimes impossible schedules include the financial difficulties of airlines over the past decade, exacerbated recently by high fuel prices.
What to do – Change the work schedules to protect more sleep time. Financial pressures, however, will make this difficult.
2. Sleep Disorders. Lots of pilots, like the rest of the population, have problems with sleep apnea, insomnia, and leg kicks. However, like truck drivers, they can at least temporarily lose their jobs if found to have sleep disorder diagnoses. As a result, most just don’t want to know.
What to do – change work rules so people will not lose work if sleep disorders are actively treated – as the vast majority can be, quickly and effectively.
3. Cockpit Boredom – It’s not always exciting flying a plane that’s on autopilot. Many pilots claim boredom to be stressful, followed by the “excitement” of landing and taking off. The situation is not dissimilar to that of anesthesiologists, whose work is sometimes described as “boredom punctuated by panic.”
What to do –encourage in-cockpit socialization and conversation, within clear limits as well as minor physical activity; try different patterned, protocolized forms of updating information that encourages greater alertness.
And then there’s the issue of rest.
Controlled Cockpit Rest
Rosekind was part of the studies in the 1980s showing how effective brief naps could be for pilots. Naps averaging 26 minutes increased alertness by about 50% for several hours, and increased performance measures by about a third.
In Europe, pilots are allowed to take “controlled cockpit rest” – naps while their fellows are flying.
Short naps can improve memory. They can improve alertness. They can markedly improve performance.
It’s time to let pilots and co-pilots take the brief times to nap in planes.
Sleep deprivation does not do anyone any good – including the people flying as passengers. Airlines, like other industries, have tested the powers of human endurance far enough – including the work schedules of all their staff.
We need to let nature back in the equation. Let your pilots sleep – before they fly, during the flight, and after. Rules can be created that follow the nature of human nature, and models from around the globe already exist.
Human nature requires rest.
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