4 Reasons Your Pilot Needs More Sleep

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterMarch 5, 2012
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterMarch 5, 2012, at 7:38 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

4 Reasons Your Pilot Needs More Sleep

It comes as no surprise that about one in 10 Americans feels sleepy on the job. If you haven't combated tiredness yourself, you've probably witnessed a co-worker yawning during a banal morning meeting or a dreary afternoon. For most of us, a little fatigue never hurt anyone… that is, until we catch a glimpse of that drowsiness in transit.

It's hard to imagine this without picturing a scene out of the 1980 film Airplane!, but according to a new poll released by the National Sleep Foundation, one in five pilots admitted to a major safety mistake at work due to sleepiness. This is just one of the frightening facts published in the National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America poll, which reflects responses from 202 pilots, 180 rail transportation workers, 203 truck drivers, 210 taxi, bus, and limo drivers, and 292 non-transportation workers.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, pilots suffer more sleep deprivation than most of the other professions surveyed. This has not gone unnoticed by the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), which released new regulations in December 2011 prohibiting pilots from receiving fewer than 10 hours off between shifts. Still, half of the pilots represented in the study say they rarely get a good night's rest. Of that group, 37 percent pointed the finger at their work schedule, claiming they are not allotted sufficient time between shifts to catch up on sleep.

The outcome of pilots' poor sleep habits can be devastating. In 2009, Flight 188, a Continental Connection flight operated by a pilot who is speculated to have pulled an all-nighter before take-off, went down in Buffalo N.Y., killing all 49 passengers. Even more disturbing: 158 passengers were killed on an Air India flight in 2010 after the pilot overshot the runway in Mangalore, India, and launched the aircraft off a cliff. The pilot had experienced "sleep inertia," a state characterized by experts as confusion after instantly waking up from a deep slumber.

Another significant risk is the loss of situational awareness, which caused pilots aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 188 to inadvertently fly hundreds of miles past their destination in 2009. After losing contact with air-traffic control for more than an hour, panic spread among passengers and flight attendants alike, which triggered a flight attendant to reach the pilots via intercom. Luckily, the flight swiftly turned around and landed safely. But this situation, along with a variety of others, demonstrates the dangerous situations that can arise as a result of pilot sleepiness. Drawing from the National Sleep Foundation's poll results, we've compiled a list of reasons your pilot needs more shut-eye.

The National Sleep Foundation poll revealed that roughly 50 percent of pilots are not getting a good night's sleep on work nights. Additionally, approximately 41 percent of pilots claim they get less sleep than required for workdays. Interestingly, 78 percent of pilots reported a more satisfying slumber on non-work nights.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends creating a relaxing bed-time routine, regular sleeping hours, and an environment that promotes a restful night's sleep to combat daytime sleepiness. However, because of their demanding work schedules, pilots are not finding the time to create healthy sleep patterns during the work week. This means pilots are clocking in the next day without the sufficient amount of rest required to do their jobs safely. With just a few additional sleep hours, pilots could improve their work performance significantly.

The National Sleep Foundation poll found that tired transportation workers reported job errors three times more frequently than their energized counterparts. Approximately 20 percent of pilots reported making major mistakes at work due to sleepiness. This doubles the percentage of bus, taxi, and limo drivers who reported that fatigue affects their work performance. Additionally, the poll revealed that 11 percent of pilots reported symptoms of sleepiness, compared with seven percent of non-transportation workers. Pilots' jobs require more rigorous attention and leave limited room for error. "We found that although pilots are especially focused on obtaining adequate sleep, one in 10 can still be classified as 'sleepy,'" says Captain Edward Edens, of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. "This is not acceptable. Who among us wants to take a one in 10 chance of flying on a plane with a sleepy pilot?"

The Sleep in America poll shows that nearly 60 percent of pilots report napping at work. The poll also revealed that 20 percent of pilots admit to snoozing on the job between three to five times per week. Unfortunately, due to the unfavorable work conditions pilots face—long hours and minimal breaks in between shifts—napping has become a dangerous reality.

"Transportation workers experience considerable variability in the days they work, the times they work, and the amount of time off between shifts," notes Patrick Sherry, a professor and sleep researcher at the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute. "This makes it difficult for such workers to maintain regular sleep/wake schedules, which can, in turn, make it difficult for these workers to maintain alertness on the job. Employers should put more effort into designing work/rest schedules that facilitate sleep and minimize workers exposure to irregular, variable schedule changes." Sure, pilots' jobs demand long hours with minimal breaks, and catching some zzz's while off duty is critical. However, napping while operating a plane imposes a serious threat to passenger safety and is easily preventable by altering poor sleep habits.

It's probably not the first risk that comes to mind, but car crashes are reported more frequently among pilots and train operators than non-transportation workers. "We should all be concerned that pilots and train operators report car crashes due to sleepiness at a rate that is six times greater than that of other workers," says Sanjay Patel, a doctor and researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Pilots and train operators reported involvement in car incidents during the commute to and from work as well as after long work hours.

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more

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