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Making Progress on Pilot Fatigue

Flying-related fatigue is a serious issue faced by many pilots. The FAA’s overhaul of rules in 2011 helped, but are we doing enough? Here’s an update on how pilot fatigue is being addressed, and what pilots can do to help.

Pilot fatigue at the forefront

Just last month on April 12, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), addressed the Senate floor in an attempt to make her case for an amendment to apply duty and rest rules for passenger airlines as well as cargo airlines.

Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a former airline pilot known for landing a disabled US Airways jetliner in the Hudson River, stood side-by-side with Sen. Boxer on the issue.

“Let me be very direct: Fatigue is a killer,” said Sullenberger. “It’s a ruthless indiscriminate killer that our industry and our regulators have allowed to continue killing for way too long.”

The amendment is not without controversy. In response, chief pilots for large cargo airlines, including FedEx and UPS, sent a letter to Senate leadership and the leaders of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to oppose the amendment.

They wrote, “Put simply, measures used to prevent fatigue must be different for passenger carriers than they are for cargo carriers because our work schedules are different. We fly fewer legs, have longer layovers, and have better rest opportunities on our trips, including while technically on duty waiting for our nightly sorts to occur.”

Sullenberger rebutted that argument by pointing out that cargo pilots often have longer flights overnight, when the human body is more likely to be tired.

FAA overhaul

In 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a 300-page overhaul of its safety rules on pilot fatigue. Among the revised rules: A commercial pilot’s workday was reduced from nine to 14 hours, from the previous 16. Pilots must also have a minimum of 10 hours rest between shifts, an increase of two hours from the previous rule. Pilots are also now guaranteed at least one 30-hour period off duty each week, an increase over the 24-hour break.

The FAA expects pilots and airlines will work together to determine if a pilot is fit for duty, or not. Before any flight, a pilot is required to affirmatively state that he or she is fit for duty. If a pilot reports he or she is fatigued and unfit for duty, the airline must remove that pilot from duty immediately.

Difficult to address

Rules such as the above aimed at reducing pilot fatigue and increasing safety are important steps, however, pilot fatigue is a difficult issue to address for multiple reasons. One problem is the lack of agreement among scientists as to what fatigue actually is. Some call it a process, others a state. Some treat it as being synonymous with sleepiness, others see it as a “moral disorder” that weakens willpower and leads to physical exhaustion.

Also, commercial aviation’s remarkable safety record makes pilot fatigue difficult to pinpoint as a major cause of accidents. More than 37.6 million commercial flights took to the skies in 2015, a new record. The global accident rate — measured as the number of aircraft lost per one million flights — was just 0.32, one of the lowest in history. Long-term trend data suggests flying is getting even safer.

This rarity of accidents is a testament to technological progress, especially improvements in airframe construction, propulsion mechanics, and avionics design. It also means proving that fatigue reduces safety is difficult, because those technologies lessen the potential fallout. The highly automated nature of flying today means aircraft flown by weary pilots will almost certainly still reach their destinations safely.

Can technology help?

With all the advancements in aviation technology, is there any device that can reduce pilot fatigue artificially? Not likely, but new psychometrics tests can measure how alert a pilot is. “Actiwatches,” small wrist-worn devices, can record a flight engineer’s sleeping patterns for months at a time, and though less high-tech, questionnaires can gauge how tired crew members believe themselves to be.

Clearly, the best thing we can do as pilots and aviation professionals is to get enough rest and take care of ourselves. It’s not a new idea at all, but is the best solution so far. That includes adopting healthy sleep habits, eating well, avoiding alcohol and staying hydrated, especially on work days, and communicating well with colleagues and management.

And don’t underestimate the restorative powers of good sleep. Achieving the type of deep restorative sleep necessary to avoid fatigue requires that muscles relax, body temperature fall, and brain activity drop. Longer periods of rest between shifts give the body the chance to do that. Limiting the total amount of flying required of pilots each month also reduces the chances of fatigue building up over consecutive work cycles.

So while the industry continues to struggle with pilot fatigue, let’s all do what we can to ensure we are well rested and ready to fly.

Sources: Rollcall.com
Wired.com: Fantastic Tech is Making Pilot Fatigue Even More Perplexing

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