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article imageCould pilots soon be napping in the cockpit? Special

By David Silverberg     Oct 17, 2009 in World
If U.S. airlines and union have their way, more pilots would be napping on long flights. They are urging the Federal Aviation Administration to allow "controlled napping" to ensure the crews are more alert.
You might think being a passenger on a 12-hour flight across the world is brutal, but what about the flight crew? Pilots, in particular, are expected to be energized and sharp during those long flights, even though they don't shut their eyes like the passengers.
In the U.S., aviation-accident investigators link tired pilots to at least 10 U.S. airliner accidents and 260 fatalities since 1990.
But now U.S. airlines and their unions are asking the Federal Aviation Administration to consider allowing pilots to nap on those tiresome flights. Pilots claim considerable research finds that so-called controlled napping will help make crews more alert during frenetic landings and other emergencies.
The Wall Street Journal reports some airlines already allow pilot naps: British Airways, Qantas and some Asian carriers, let pilots catch some shut-eye "during routine cruise portions of certain flights, when crews sometimes have relatively little to do for hours."
American Airlines is planning to collect data on pilot fatigue, to later present to the FAA. Also, as the WSJ reports, a joint industry-labor committee recently tabled proposed changes to help the FAA "rewrite decades-old pilot-scheduling regulations to reflect the latest findings about the causes of fatigue."
Canada is also delving into this issue. The Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) says it will track incidents related to pilot fatigue. It will share the study with Air Canada and Transport Canada to hopefully improve duty schedules to reduce the fatigue risk.
What's intriguing to note is that pilots are already napping on the job (don't worry, there are other crew members to take over during nap time). The WSJ found that pilots sometimes speak in code with their onboard colleagues. "I think I'm going to meditate now" is one signal, according to pilots.
Curt Graeber, a former government and industry sleep expert who did some of the earliest studies on the topic, told controlled napping is a counter-measure to "subtle incapacitation", where the pilot is unable to perform his duties.
Graeber also addresses the public concern over pilots napping. After all, some people might wonder if a sleeping pilot could put passengers at risk. He scoffs at the idea. "The riskiest moment is the approach, the landing," Graeber says. "Would you rather the pilot take a nap while you're having supper or while the plane is landing?"
Graeber recommends controlled naps of no more than 40 minutes, at 25 minutes on average. Napping for a half-hour, pilots don't reach a deep sleep and aren't disoriented when they wake up.
The FAA should take the data and studies seriously, Graeber stresses. "It's time to make pilot fatigue visible, time to make a procedure to combat it."
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