fatigue: Is FAA sleeping on the job?
By Storee Powell
April 13, 2009 | James Lipscomb was
en route on a seemingly ordinary flight from Alaska
to Hawaii. Lipscomb had flown it before and anticipated
no problems for the more than 10-hour ride. He was piloting
a Delta plane over the Pacific. Not too far into the
flight, Lipscomb took a look at how many miles were
left to his destination: 602. The next time Lipscomb
remembered blinking he saw there were only 80 miles
left to the Hawaiian destination. His heart skipped
a beat or two. Lipscomb had nodded off at the pilot’s
wheel. How could this have happened?
Anyone who has flown before is asking
themselves the same question right now: “How many times
has my pilot fallen asleep?” But Lipscomb was experiencing
something dangerous that too many pilots feel everyday
on the job, something preventable. He had succumbed
to pilot fatigue. This pilot like most others was not
dog-tired by choice or irresponsibility. The airline
and outdated FAA regulations had worked him over to
his limit. The inopportune combination of the airline’s
need for pilot productivity and the Federal Aviation
Agency’s outdated regulations regarding rest time for
pilots caused Lipscomb to be exhausted ultimately putting
him and others at risk.
What is pilot fatigue? Lawrence Hemingway
is a friend of Lipscomb. He teaches Human Factors and
Safety in Aviation at USU with 35 years of flying experience
under his belt. According to Hemingway, pilot fatigue
is feeling brain dead and completely washed out from
lack of sleep and flying too many hours. A Wall Street
Journal article explains pilot fatigue can cause
headaches, irrationality and micro-sleep, which is when
pilots become unresponsive for up to a minute, though
their eyes are open. These mental and physical effects
in turn cause technical mistakes such as mixing up switches
as well as impaired communication such as missing a
radio call or not getting along with the crew.
Lipscomb isn’t the only one who has
slept on the job. Hemingway recalls one trip when he
was co-piloting a flight from Panama to Rio de Janiero.
After taking off at midnight, Hemingway dozed off and
woke up several minutes later to discover that all of
his crew members were also sleeping.
“It really scares you,” Hemingway
said. “It takes you longer to perceive what someone
is telling you when you’re that tired. I stayed awake
for the rest of that night.”
According to the Wall Street Journal,
the National Transportation Safety Board identifies
pilot fatigue as one of its 10 “Most Wanted” safety
improvements. At least 10 U.S. plane accidents and 260
fatalities since 1990 have been attributed to fatigue,
which increases drastically after working more than
12 hours in a row, the article said.
Hemingway said one of these accidents
occurred in Guantanamo Bay. A plane banked too sharp
and crashed. The captain survived and said he was so
tired he couldn’t understand what his crew members were
telling him. Another incident in Little Rock killed
ten people after a plane flew into a thunderstorm and
the crew lost control, sending the plane off the end
of the runway. The mistakes were caused by fatigue.
While 20 accidents have been attributed to pilot fatigue,
numerous close calls have been reported, said the “WSJ.”
The problem of fatigue isn’t always
easy to pinpoint, Hemingway said.
“You can go back and check
how the pilot spent the night, and all that stuff, but
we can’t know exactly how the pilots were feeling at
the time of the crash,” Hemingway said.
Regulations are difficult to create
because it’s tough to decide the point of fatigue when
a pilot is unable to fly safely, Hemingway said.
“It’s somewhat like driving
a car when you’re really tired,” Hemingway said. “When
do you pull over and take a nap? Well, you can’t do
that in an airplane.”
Although it’s difficult to assess
how tired is too tired, the issue isn’t if pilots are
fatigued because of their tough schedules. Rather, the
disagreement is what the best solution to a complicated
Why doesn’t the FAA just demand pilots
get more time for sleep? What seems like a simple solution—pilots
getting proper time to rest—is complicated by many variables
such as flight times, layovers, flying in bad weather,
differing aircraft type and the ailing economy, which
the airlines are feeling.
The FAA did in fact propose new regulations
in October 2008, a “New York Times” article said. The
current regulations mandate eight hours of consecutive
rest in any 24-hour period. The new regulations only
focus on ultra long-haul flights ignoring the problems
of multiple short-leg flights. The new proposal would
require flight crews of ultra long-haul flights to have
48 hours of rest-time rather than 24 to ensure pilots
get two full periods of sleep before making a return
flight, according to the New York Times.
However, airlines shot down the FAA’s
proposal like an enemy aircraft. Several of the companies,
including Continental, sued the FAA. Hemingway said
it was because they were not concerned with the rules
per say, but because of the cost of implementing them.
Airlines would have to hire 20 percent more pilots among
doing other costly things, Hemingway said.
The thorny nature of this problem
is one of the reasons nothing has been done sooner,
since essentially the ‘60s. Working something out that
is economically feasible for airlines is tough. According
to the “WSJ,” since 2001 struggling airlines are squeezing
an extra 10 to 15 hours per month out of pilots, bringing
them very close to the 100-hour maximum allowed by the
“The FAA is a dinosaur as far
as changing things,” Hemingway said. “They are so slow
it can take up to 10 years where there’s a money situation.
There’s a lot of lip service saying that safety is number
Many pilots also shot the new regulations
down, but for different reasons. Hemingway, who flew
for Pan Am and SkyWest for several years, was at first
in favor of the proposal.
“We’ve been studying the effects
of fatigue for so long and the FAA finally does something
to help pilots,” Hemingway said. “But I didn’t realize
it was only for long-haul flights.”
In many ways, multiple short-leg
flights are more exhausting than long-hauls. Hemingway
said that as soon as the plane is parked, the eight-hour
rest-period starts. If landing at 11 p.m., it takes
an hour to unload passengers, finish paperwork, clean
and lock the plane and wait for crew transport to arrive.
It is already midnight, but it is still 15 minutes to
the hotel and another hour to eat. By the time a pilot
actually falls asleep, it’s 2 a.m. In three hours, the
pilot has to get up. Since the crew has technically
had the eight hours of rest-time for the 24 hours, the
crew is required to fly half a dozen short trips in
several days. Since many commuter flights shuttle between
hubs, flights run late and start early. The proposals
don’t even take into account downtime for weather that
long-haul flights can avoid. Hemingway said he thought
this was “legal abuse of the system.”
Twenty-year American airline pilot
and 1980 USU graduate, Pete Rasmussen, flies ultra-long
haul flights all over the world. Rasmussen was also
against the new FAA proposal. Long-haul flights are
taken into account by the proposal; nevertheless, the
new rules would make fatigue worse. According to Rasmussen,
this is because international flying covers many time
zones, which operates against Home Body Time. HBT is
Rasmussen’s way of saying circadian rhythm.
According to the “New York Times,”
the body has a system that regulates a person’s sleep
time, what Rasmussen calls HBT. The problem is the time
changes dramatically halfway around the world. Crews
will leave in daylight and arrive in daylight ready
for bed, but HBT says bedtime is when it gets dark,
Rasmussen said the longer one stays
at one destination, the more the body adjusts to the
foreign time zone. The two-day rest period proposed
by the FAA would confuse pilot’s HBT on the trip back,
making them fatigued, Rasmussen said.
Some pilots were in favor of the
proposed regulations, however. Lipscomb, a Delta long-haul
pilot for over 35 years, said he disagreed with the
rejection of the FAA proposal. “I think that sleep deprivation
on long-haul flights is insidious. Your mental capacity
shuts down, and you don’t even know it,” Lipscomb said.
“The effects are cumulative. It takes longer to get
back on schedule.”
Rasmussen agreed that something is
needed to prevent abuse of pilots by airlines. Despite
the fatigue policy of his airline, which allows pilots
to call in to say they’re too tired to fly with no questions
asked as well as the four-man pilot rotation for ultra-long
haul flights, Rasmussen is still abused. Rasmussen said
he is logging an extra 10 to 15 hours per month, not
including layovers and bad weather.
The demanding flight schedule fatigues
Rasmussen so much he has to make up for it in other
“It’s to a point where vacation
time is used to recover to make sure you’re safe to
fly rather than for fun,” Rasmussen said.
What would be an alternative solution?
Rasmussen thinks the FAA needs to reconsider their starting
“I don’t think they got input
from people who really do it. That’s the impression
I’ve got from other pilots as well,” Rasmussen said.
“A better solution would be to stay on HBT somehow.”
Hemingway thinks he knows how to
accomplish this feat. The NASA Strategic Safety Team
has been researching strategic napping. This, according
to Hemingway, is taking naps less than a half-hour while
flying at altitude. Hemingway said the naps over a half-hour
put people into deep sleep, but the short time pilots
have to rest doesn’t allow them to get enough deep sleep,
leaving them more exhausted after an hour than refreshed.
While long-haul flights achieve this by taking an extra
pilot, Hemingway thinks a two-pilot crew can do the
job. This would allow short trip pilots to rest as well.
This would permit a pilot to take a 10-minute refresher
while the other flew the plane, Hemingway said. However,
this idea isn’t yet approved by the FAA. Hemingway said
it’s because the FAA thinks that without someone overseeing
the operating crew member, he or she could make a mistake.
Hemingway said that making a mistake at altitude with
autopilot is less likely.
After Lipscomb realized he had fallen
asleep at the wheel, he checked to make sure they were
en route to the correct destination. Thanks to modern
auto-pilot, a tragedy had been averted, this time. Everything
was fine, except Lipscomb.
“I didn’t sleep the rest of
that night,” said Lipscomb.
It didn’t end there, though.
Hemingway said that as Lipscomb approached
retirement age, he became “haggard,” and eventually
chronically fatigued. Lipscomb had to be medically retired.
“We used to play 18 holes together,”
Hemingway said. “But Lipscomb became so exhausted he
couldn’t even play 3 holes.”
The lifestyle of a commercial pilot
undeniably takes its toll.
“It is mentally exhausting
to try and stay awake,” Hemingway said. “You’re always
in a different bed. Sometimes you’d wake up and say,
‘Where am I?’ You’d go to the window and try to figure
it out. Not sleeping in your own bed is tough.”
The FAA’s lethargic approach to change
pilot fatigue regulations is cause for concern. Pilots
will have to hope that the sleeping dinosaur of North
America, the FAA, isn’t extinct.