Commentary: Staying awake for lengthy hours – how pilots combat fatigue to fly long-haul flights

Commentary: Staying awake for lengthy hours – how pilots combat fatigue to fly long-haul flights

Should pilots be allowed to nap in the cockpit? How much rest should they have? Stephen Rice and Scoll Winter from Emry-Riddle Aeronautical University discuss.

FILE PHOTO: The cockpit of Jet Airways Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircarft is pictured during its induction c
FILE PHOTO: The cockpit of Jet Airways Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircarft is pictured during its induction ceremony at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport in Mumbai, India, June 28, 2018. Picture taken June 28, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Abhirup Roy/File Photo)

DAYTONA, Florida: Airline pilots are often exhausted. An extreme example happened in 2008, when a pilot and a co-pilot both fell asleep at the controls, missing their landing in Hawaii – earning pilot’s license suspensions as well as getting fired.

More recently, overtired pilots came very close to landing on top of another airplane at San Francisco International Airport in 2017.

LONG HOURS

It’s not uncommon for a pilot for a major commercial airline to, for instance, start work in Florida at 5pm, with her first flight departing an hour later for a five-hour trip across the country, arriving in California just after 8 pm local time.

Then she might get a short break and fly a 90-minute short-hop flight to another California city. When she lands from this second flight, she has spent six and a half hours of the last nine in the cockpit.

She is also three time zones from where she started work, and her body thinks it’s 2 am. There’s no doubt she’s tired – and she’s lucky not to have encountered any schedule adjustments for aircraft maintenance or weather delays.

Many pilots and others remain worried that two pilots are required to remain awake and alert for the entire flight, though one or both may be dealing with symptoms of fatigue. One possible suggestion is letting pilots take brief naps in the cockpit.

READ: The end of another budget airline in Europe, a commentary

LIMITING PILOTS’ WORK TIME

Pilot fatigue can be difficult to predict or diagnose – especially since tired pilots usually manage to take off, fly and land safely. Even when something goes wrong, accident investigators may have little evidence of fatigue, except perhaps the sound of someone yawning on cockpit audio recordings.

In 2014, the US Federal Aviation Administration imposed the first new pilot-rest rules in 60 years, limiting overall on-duty time and flight hours per day depending on when a pilot’s shift starts.

The rules also established a process by which pilots can report fatigue without being disciplined by their airlines or the government.

RESTING IN THE COCKPIT

It’s widely known that a short nap can improve a pilot’s alertness. Some planes, such as those commonly used on long international flights, have beds their pilots and other crew can use, but smaller planes don’t have the space.

Only flights that are longer than eight hours require an additional pilot to be on board so one pilot at a time can rotate out for rest. On shorter flights, US regulations expect both pilots to remain alert for the entire length of the flight, without any chance for rest during the flight.

Some countries, including Canada and Australia, allow for pilots to nap in the cockpit. In an example from China, a pilot was caught napping and faced disciplinary action for napping in the cockpit.

cockpit of a plane
(Photo: Unsplash/Trent Erwin)

The official procedure to allow for pilots to nap in the cockpit is called “controlled rest in position” or CRIP.

The rules are strict. The Air Canada Flight Operations Manual, for instance, says a pilot who wants to rest must notify the co-pilot and a flight attendant. The pilot can sleep for no more than 40 minutes, and must wake up at least half an hour before the descent for landing.

They get the first 15 minutes after the nap to fully awaken, during which they can’t resume actually flying the plane, unless they need to help deal with an emergency.

READ: How rising star Jet airways fell victim to a cut-throat, competitive aviation market, a commentary

WHAT PASSENGERS THINK

In general, people are less willing to fly when they know a pilot might be allowed to sleep at the controls, and women are less willing than men.

In our research, we find that this is mostly attributed to fear, because they don’t understand the benefits of pilot naps. Some of our earlier work has shown that when consumers understand the value of a new procedure, they’ll feel better about it.

It seems likely that explaining to people how better-rested pilots makes a flight safer could help more people feel comfortable flying in a plane where the CRIP procedure is allowed.

WHAT PILOTS THINK

In a follow-up study, we asked pilots what they thought about being allowed to rest in the cockpit during flight – and they were much more enthusiastic than nonpilots. Seventy per cent favoured allowing for CRIP.

On average, all pilots we surveyed felt that naps of 45 minutes should be approved, which was closely related to the 40 minutes suggested by scientific evidence.

United Airlines planes, including a Boeing 737 MAX 9 model, are pictured at George Bush Intercontin
United Airlines planes, including a Boeing 737 MAX 9 model, are pictured at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, U.S., March 18, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Loren Elliott)

They also recognised the need for the pilot to be awake at least 30 minutes before beginning the descent to landing. Overall, the participants thought there were very few potential problems with CRIP and said it would be useful.

However, some pilots did express worry about unintended consequences. The airlines, knowing that pilots could take naps during the flight, might be tempted to impose more rigorous flight schedules that would eliminate any benefits derived from CRIP.

Lastly, participants commented on how this procedure is already being used by international carriers such as Air Canada and Qantas with success.

So far, those companies’ crews have not registered widespread complaints about abuse of scheduling practices, and none of the survey respondents who fly for those airlines complained about this potential problem.

READ: How much could 737 MAX fleet grounding cost Boeing? A commentary

WILL IT BE ALLOWED WORLDWIDE?

It is hard to say whether countries like the US would ever move to let pilots nap in the cockpit. The scientific research provides empirical evidence as to its advantages, and while consumers are somewhat hesitant, pilots seem very supportive of it.

What is clear is that fatigue in the cockpit remains a threat to the aviation industry worldwide. Given the scientific evidence supporting CRIP to counter fatigue, clearly there is value in considering how it could improve aviation safety.

Perhaps it’s time to listen to the pilots we trust to fly these airplanes and let them rest when they need to – within reason, and so they can fly more safely.

Scholl Winter is assistant professor of graduate studies at Emry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen Rice is professor of human factors at the same university. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. 


Bookmark