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New Sleepiness Study a Wake-Up Call for Pilots

New Sleepiness Study a Wake-Up Call for PilotsIt's safe to say that every pilot who has ever flown more than a few hours has experienced some sleepiness and fatigue "on the job." A new survey by the National Sleep Foundation puts some numbers to this growing occurrence, and the need for pilots and the aviation industry to better manage pilot schedules and fatigue.

The transportation workers were asked about the duration and quality of their sleep, specifically on work nights, and how it affects their work performance. Questions included how much sleep they get, compared with how much they feel they need to operate their vehicles safely, if they feel sleepy at work, and if sleepiness on the job has ever contributed to unsafe conditions for themselves and their passengers. The survey also asked if their current work schedules allow enough time for sleep and recovery.

Results of the Study

The results of the poll are some cause for alarm, and reinforce the growing problem of sleep disorders and the potential risks they pose, particularly with regard to pilots and aviation. Some of the results of the survey are:

  • About one-fourth of the pilots polled said that sleepiness has affected their job performance at least once a week.
  • One in five pilots polled — about 20 percent — said they have made a "serious error" as a result of on-the-job sleepiness.
  • One in five pilots admit to a "near miss" due to on-the-job sleepiness.
  • Pilots are more likely than non-transportation workers to have been involved in a sleep-related car accident while commuting.
  • Among all workers surveyed, pilots report the most work day sleep dissatisfaction.
  • Almost one-half of pilots say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on work nights.

Wake-Up Call for Pilots

Fatigue is a serious issue faced by many pilots, especially commercial airline pilots, and the NSF poll puts some numbers to an issue that many pilots have been quietly dealing with for years. The aviation industry as a whole seems to be waking up to the problem.

In December, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a 300-page overhaul of its safety rules on pilot fatigue. Among the new rules scheduled to take effect within two years: a commercial pilot’s workday was reduced to 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 will also be 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.

The FAA’s ruling was a good regulatory step, but it is up to all of us in the aviation industry — FBOs, owners, pilots, maintenance crews, etc. — to do what we can to ensure that the safety of passengers and crew are priority number one. That includes adopting healthy sleep habits, acting responsibly, especially on work nights, and communicating with supervisors and management. It could save lives one day.

To read the full report, see "Sleepy Pilots, Train Operators and Drivers" on the National Sleep Foundation website.

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