NPR Story
12:00 pm
Thu December 22, 2011

New FAA Rules For Pilots Seek To Beat Fatigue

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Three years after a commuter airline crash near Buffalo that killed 50, the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules to reduce one of the key factors that contribute to accidents: pilot fatigue.

The FAA cited cases where lack of sleep led to procedural errors, unstable approaches, lining up with the wrong runway and landing without clearance. The new rules call for shorter shifts and longer rest periods between flights. They do not apply to cargo pilots, and commercial airlines have two years to implement them.

So for now, pilots, when do you sleep? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Georgetown professor Philip Carver on the homework assignment of a lifetime. But first, Bart Jansen joins us here in Studio 3A. He covers FAA and Transportation Security Administration for USA Today. Nice to have you with us.

BART JANSEN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And these new rules, as we mentioned in response to that crash in Buffalo, the Colgan crash, was fatigue specifically cited there?

JANSEN: The NTSB did not blame fatigue specifically in that crash, but they did note the pilots didn't necessarily sleep in a bed the night before the crash. They were heard yawning on the cockpit recorder. And so the relatives of the victims have used that flight to really push for these changes, and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood credited those families with keeping the pressure on and keeping an eye on fatigue.

CONAN: Also in relation to that flight, we learned that particular commuter pilots can commute a long time to their flight, and these new rules take that into effect.

JANSEN: That's right. For the first time, the - it's called flight duty period, which is the whole day not when you're actually at the controls flying the plane, will start counting the time that they perhaps commute by flying on another plane, just essentially as a passenger but flying on another plane to get to the flight that they're actually piloting.

CONAN: So awake.

JANSEN: Correct, right.

CONAN: And how much does it reduce the amount of time they'll be able to fly?

JANSEN: Well, the flight duty periods were 16 hours. They are now being reduced to nine to 14, depending on how many flight segments you're flying in a day and what time of day you start and stop. If you're starting overnight, you get to fly less, and then there are longer rest periods, as well.

CONAN: And the accommodations have to be taken into account, too.

JANSEN: Yes, the rest periods in the past had been eight hours, but that could include the time that you took driving to the hotel, you know, not necessarily asleep. What they're asking for now is 10 hours of rest with at least eight of it as uninterrupted sleep time. And if the schedule or the pilot feels that something was a distraction, they couldn't meet that standard, they are supposed to, you know, put up their hand and report it and say that they can't be included in the next day.

CONAN: And that should be without penalty.

JANSEN: That's the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We'll find out more when we talk to pilots. This comes in the opposition from - despite opposition from airlines and they said the cost of this could be substantial.

JANSEN: Yeah, the FAA estimated that this should cost airlines something like $300 million over 10 years. The costs could be through additional hiring of pilots because you'd need more to cover the flights that you've got. The airlines contend that under a previous proposal for this rule that it could be as much as $2 billion a year, although that included some things that are no longer included in this rule.

So they say it's going to be way more expensive than FAA calculated.

CONAN: And one area where expenses definitely came into the calculation involves cargo pilots. They mostly fly at night, and the cargo companies said wait a minute, these rules would be prohibitively expensive for us.

JANSEN: That's right. They - the pilot unions all advocated to have better rules. The rules were first defined 50 years ago. Planes have gotten much more complicated. The assignment has gotten much more difficult. And so they thought everybody ought to be included in a revision of these rules.

Cargo was carved out because Secretary LaHood and FAA administrator Michael Huerta found that the cost benefit of including cargo pilots was just too prohibitive on that industry. So they're going to try to encourage them to participate voluntarily, but they are not required to follow these rules.

CONAN: And none of these rules take effect for two years.

JANSEN: Correct. They're giving the commercial airline companies two years to implement them because it's going to take a little bit of work to get the schedules revised so that they follow these new standards.

CONAN: Let's get some pilots in on the conversation. We're asking, since these rules don't take effect for a couple of years, if you fly cargo, they may never take effect, when do you sleep? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Jim(ph), and Jim's on the line with us from - where is this, Fernlove in Nevada?

JIM: Close, it's Fernley, Nevada.

CONAN: Fernley, Nevada. OK, go ahead.

JIM: Yeah, I really enjoy your show, just have to say that.

CONAN: Thank you.

JIM: Well, you know, the problem with these rules are is, you know, pilots, unlike others, we move around, across time zones and other things. So you know, whether you get six hours or eight hours of sleep isn't really the important part. I get up at 5 a.m. every day, and I go out on duty for 16 hours and fly eight hours, and I go, and I get my rest, and that's my cycle every day. There's no problem there.

The problem comes in, I'll just give you my personal example, I fly a 747, and it's international. So I commute to Hawaii, but I do it a day ahead of time, and so there's no issue there. But I leave Hawaii around noon, and I get into my destination, Japan - Japan time, around 6 in the evening. Now of course that's much later for me, for my body. So I want to go to sleep when I hit the ground.

But I don't. I force myself to stay up until 9 or 10. If I'm lucky, I'll get up at 5 in the morning. If I'm not lucky, I'll get up at 2 in the morning. And then my next flight is that night. Well, I can't just turn off. Now granted, it sounds great, I've had 24 hours off, but I can't just turn off during the day.

So I'm up all day, and then my next flight's that night, and I'm up all night, get to my next destination, let's say Australia, during the day, and so I'll take a nap, a little nap during the day because I'm tired, I've been up for, you know, 30-plus hours, and then the next flight will be the next day. So that one's OK because I've switched back into a day, and my body will want to sleep at night, even though I'm kind of twisted around on time zones.

And I have to say as a pilot I have been at the controls looking at the runway, hands on the controls, with - I don't know if you know what I'm talking about, but it's like somebody has a little switch, and they're turning you on and off, your eyes are blinking. And, you know, you're nodding in and out, in and out, in and out.

You hit the ground, and of course then all the adrenaline is there, and now you're up for a couple hours because you can't go to sleep, even though you were about to fall asleep on the approach.

So they don't take into consideration where are you and when are you versus where you were, and...

CONAN: Well there is - and Jim, thanks very much for the call and for elucidating a problem, and suddenly my job seems a lot easier. But thanks very much for that, and thanks for your kind words, too. But Bart Jansen, there is some consideration of time zones.

JANSEN: There is. There is going - they will require greater acclimation in new time zones for pilots as part of that rest period. I can't cite the specifics right now, but they will - on long flights like that, they are going to be requiring more time off between those long segments and, you know, even without that greater perhaps rest period than what he's citing.

I mean, if you stopped at midnight, you could not get behind the wheel again before 10 a.m. under these new rules.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Joe(ph), and Joe's with us from Boise.

JOE: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOE: Yeah, I echo the sentiments of the previous caller. I also fly cargo internationally, and, you know, my schedule sounds similar to what you just heard. And my problem is the 24-hour layover, which sounds like an adequate amount of rest; however, if you're arriving at a destination at midnight and going to bed at 2 a.m. by the time you get to your hotel, and then all of a sudden you have a 3 a.m. departure 24 hours later, it's very difficult to get your body on any kind of sleep cycle and a schedule that you're used to if you have a normal 9-to-5 type of job.

And that I find the most difficult. Now suddenly you have to find yourself sleeping twice within 24 hours, and that's a very difficult thing to do. And the accommodations they have for us are very nice. They're comfortable. They give us plenty of opportunity to rest, but it's just difficult to tell the human body just OK, sleep now.

CONAN: Yeah, and especially when it's repeated and repeated and repeated.

JOE: Yes, yes, multiple 24- to 25-hour layovers are probably the worst. It's - having a, you know, a layover with 18 hours or 36 hours is much better, where you can sleep once, get up, go to work, get to your destination and sleep again. However, these cargo schedules aren't quite like that. They're all over.

You could very well, on a week-long trip you could probably fly all 24 hours of the clock.

CONAN: Would you also agree with our previous caller there have been moments where you're coming down toward the runway and find yourself nodding off?

JOE: Well personally not with me, but I have seen it with other colleagues. Yes, that's very possible. I mean, fatigue is a very insidious thing, I think. It's not just, you know, the switch is on, and all of a sudden you flip the switch off, and OK, I'm fatigued. You know, you're like OK, I'm kind of tired, I think I can get through this next flight, but, you know, it's a difficult thing to measure.

And yeah, I have seen that happen with colleagues before, and usually I can get enough adrenaline going just to last for the, you know, approach and the landing and get through that part.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Joe, and safe flying.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. As you look ahead to these regulations, Bart Jansen, the pilots are I'm sure going to say good step but not far enough, certainly on the cargo regulations. And the airlines are going to say this is going to cost us a fortune. We're going to have to hire a lot of new people and jigger around all these schedules.

JANSEN: Yes, the airlines have already said that, and unfortunately for the last caller, you know, cargo not yet included, and, you know, he may face the same concerns. But the thing that the FAA made a big point about yesterday in announcing these rules is that they did try to take scientific research into account in developing the rules, take into account that really you don't want to be up in the middle of the night.

And that's why they jiggered the rules so that if you're starting in the middle of the night, you fly less, and you, you know, divide up the day better. But the problem, part of the reason why cargo became prohibitively expensive to incorporate in this rule is because cargo pilots fly often overnight, in the middle of the night. So they're sort of in the worst situation in this.

CONAN: Bart Jansen of USA Today just mentioned scientific research. In a moment, Dr. Charles Czeisler joins us to talk about the way sleep deprivation messes with our brains. And we want to hear from more pilots, as well. When do you guys sleep? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Sleep deprivation is a problem in many lines of work. Harvard researchers have found police officers don't get enough shuteye, which can lead to unchecked anger on the job. Medical residents work 28-hour shifts and went longer before a new set of rules implemented in July limited their hours.

Yesterday, pilots learned they will get new rules aimed at managing fatigue, as well. So pilots, give us a call. When do you sleep? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. He joins us from a studio there in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

DR. CHARLES CZEISLER: Thank you, Neal. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And the FAA says it used the latest fatigue science to guide these requirements. As you look at them, I'm sure, like many pilots, you'll say maybe a step forward. Do they go far enough?

CZEISLER: Well, of course not including cargo pilots is very unfortunate because those cargo pilots are often flying during the nighttime hours and trying to sleep during the daytime hours. And so they really are right at the sharp edge of difficulty adjusting, and they're the ones who really need at least 10 hours off in order to maintain eight hours time for sleep because it's even harder to sleep during the daytime than it is, of course, at night.

CONAN: And in terms of how pilots respond to fatigue, I gather one of the few studies that tracked pilots' brainwaves during flights was done by NASA. This was on trans-oceanic flights. It caught 44 percent of the pilots sleeping on the job.

JANSEN: Yes, and they were sleeping, typically, on average, about 45 minutes as they transited the Atlantic. And so it's very pervasive problem. You know, everybody thinks that the passengers are all draped over the seats on these redeye flights as they go across from the East Coast to Europe but that the pilots are perky and awake up front, but that study showed that that's not true.

CONAN: Well, those are the long-haul pilots. What about those pilots who fly commuter flights, hops, many hops in a row?

CZEISLER: Well, they can often go, as Jim said when he called in earlier, from early morning hours all the way straight through the day, as currently they are often scheduled for many, many hours and very long days. And these rules should help to trim that and provide them at least a 10-hour opportunity for rest at night.

I am a little bit concerned looking at the rules because there appears to be a loophole in them, where if an airline implements a fatigue - what's called a fatigue risk management system, they may be able to circumvent the rules, and I'm concerned that even if they provide education for pilots and try to monitor their fatigue that there should still be absolute limits as to how many hours that they can fly and absolute limits on the minimum number of hours for rest.

And I'd like to understand more about that. That's not explained in the rules as they were issued.

CONAN: Bart Jansen, do you know more about that?

JANSEN: Yeah, the FAA did give the opportunity for airlines to come up with their own plans if they could come up with a scientifically justified alternative to the kind of guidelines that these rules provide. But the FAA will have to sign off on those rules. So I think they would say they're trying to allow flexibility but that they will still keep an eye on the standards.

But as you say, it's - you know, you maybe want to keep that 10 hours of rest. It might - I'm not sure where the flexibility would come and perhaps how you order the segments during the day.

CONAN: And when he talks about monitoring, is there any provision for monitoring in these rules, to measure the pilots' brainwaves or even have a camera on them?

JANSEN: I haven't heard of anything like that as part of these rules.

CONAN: Dr. Czeisler, might that be a step forward?

CZEISLER: It could be a step forward, but my understand is that this would be internal monitoring, and I haven't heard anything such as a camera or other systems that really could measure whether or not there are lapses of attention happening in the pilots when they're flying.

CONAN: And pilots have a lot of reasons why they would object to cameras in the cockpit. So that's something that would have to be worked out with the unions, and they may not be happy with that. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from Philadelphia.

KEVIN: Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I would like to, if I could, emphasize one thing that was already mentioned very early in the show about rest.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KEVIN: The - like he mentioned, it can be as low as eight hours of rest. You know, rest begins, at my company anyway, I work for a major airline, 15 minutes after we shut the engines down. And so in the eyes of the FAA, we're resting while the passengers are still deplaning, and we're still on the airplane.

And we often go through that hotel door an hour into our rest period, and of course as you probably would know that when you go through a hotel door, you can't just assume a sleep position. You know, it takes a while to wind down. And then of course we have to wake up an hour before our rest ends to get ready for the next days' flying.

So as you can imagine with what I just said, the real rest, not the FAA's version of rest but the real rest, is really only about five, five-and-a-half hours of sleep. And where do we get our sleep? I fly an airplane that flies sometimes three or four flights a day, and I'll often come into the cockpit, you see the captain and my flight attendants all sleeping in first class chairs waiting, you know, to board the next flight in an hour or 45 minutes.

So sometimes we get our sleep during the day onboard the airplane.

CONAN: While it's on the ground we hope. But Kevin, thanks very much, and we appreciate your calling in. Dr. Czeisler, what kinds - when he's talking about those kinds of sleep patterns, what kinds of problems can that lead to, does research show us?

CZEISLER: Well, research shows us that when you're not getting an adequate amount of sleep at night, the fatigue accumulates, and you build up a sleep deficiency. And within about a week, your sleep - the impact of that sleep deficiency is just as bad as if you were awake 24 hours. And we know that that induces a level of impairment that's equivalent with being legally drunk in terms of the impairment of our reaction time and other measures of performance.

CONAN: It's interesting, the president of the Independent Pilots' Association, Robert Travis, is opposed to the exemption for cargo carriers. He said giving air cargo carriers the choice to opt in to new pilot rest rules makes as much sense as allowing truckers to opt out of drunk driving laws.

From what you just said, that's not an exaggeration.

CZEISLER: No, it's not. And another area that seems to be missing from the regulations, although this 300-page document has only just been released yesterday and I haven't read every word, but it doesn't seem to deal with the commuting that happens before the flight.

And many pilots are actually living in a different place, possibly across the country, from where they are domiciled to have their first - where the airline company has them assigned to be living.

CONAN: Bart Jansen, I think you told us it does take that into account.

JANSEN: Yes, this new flight duty rules, allowing for a nine- to 14-hour day, that will begin to recognize that commuting time, to count, basically - it's not counted as the flight time of the eight or nine hours per shift but that it will count as the flight duty time of up to 14 hours. So they will begin counting that, and that's what regional airlines in particular are worried about because of people getting around to their different jobs.

One other mention on something you just said about the cumulative sleep deprivation, part of the new rule expands the amount of rest that you have to have consecutively each week so that they have to have 30 consecutive hours of rest each week, which is up from 24.

So you're going to get a weekend, or a better weekend, anyway, from now on.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Jim(ph), Jim with us from Andover in Minnesota.

JIM: Yes, hi. I fly for a major airline. I also commute to work. But I just wanted to mention, you know, they talk about the rest problems and the eight hours. Many of the major carriers, and I'm not counting (unintelligible), in our current contracts with ALPA have a nine-hour minimum at the hotel. So we are able, usually, to get the eight hours of minimum rest.

So we land, we're delayed, and we break into our normal time, and we call the crew desk and say hey, we can depart nine hours later, and they'll adjust the flights as necessary or re-crew that flight and put us on a later one. So the problem isn't pervasive in the industry, as far as the minimum times.

Now, there are other issues, obviously flying international time zones, I also do that, and you get a three-day trip to London, we get one night in a hotel. Where is the other night? So - but I do think that, you know, we do need some fatigue assistance so we don't have to negotiate for it in every contract. And I appreciate the FAA for stepping in.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email, this is from Brian(ph) in Michigan: As an on-demand cargo pilot, I may be awake and on call all day long and not called into work until midnight with little notice, not returning until 9 a.m. We find that taking turns napping is a safe and effective method for keeping up our alertness.

It's unfortunate that airlines or the FAA would not allow short naps for pilots that are short on sleep. Sleeping on the job is looked down on in most work environments but would be a great option for airlines if we could get over that stigma. And Dr. Czeisler, is he right, sleeping a 45-minute nap during a flight, might that be, if it's allowed, a good thing?

CZEISLER: Absolutely. Dr. Mark Rosekind, who's now a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, when he worked at NASA-Ames, did a landmark study in which he actually tested the efficacy of a 45-minute rest break that allowed an opportunity for a nap. Typically the naps were about 20 minutes.

And they dramatically reduced the episodes of inattention and lapses of attention and falling asleep from top of descent to landing. So what that earlier caller Joe had - caller - or actually - sorry, the earlier caller Jim had mentioned nodding in and out and falling asleep on the approach. That's what's dramatically improved if they're given a chance to nap during the flight.

CONAN: Do the new regulations, Bart Jansen, allow for napping during flights and just parenthetically, the last time we were talking about sleeping on the job in air transport, it was about the air traffic controllers. Have they got new regulations?

JANSEN: I don't believe the air traffic controllers have new regulations. I'm sure as these rules get digested, other unions of, as we said, cargo pilots, other aspects of the industry are going to want to get similar consideration because they also have stressful jobs where you don't want people falling asleep. In terms of the napping, I suspect - I think what this rule is trying to say is they want a certain amount of sleep, you know, the 10-hour rest between shifts but that there might be the greater flexibility for napping over that 14-hour flight-duty period.

So that - I suspect that might be part of the place where FAA is thinking maybe that's where an airline can come up with a good idea about that. I do think, though, that a lot of the - in the development of the regulations, the concern was that they get rest in a bed - or in a quiet area because people were trying to catch naps in, like, lunchrooms and...

CONAN: Or as we heard, in first class, waiting for the next...

JANSEN: Right.

CONAN: ...group of passengers.

JANSEN: And that maybe isn't the best rest.

CONAN: I'm an airline - writes Stacey(ph) in Washington, D.C., I'm an airline captain for a regional airline flying in one time zone, Eastern. My largest complaint is starting at 4 a.m. one day and flying a trip on mornings. Then a few days later, I'm assigned to fly until midnight. There's no consistency on early flying versus late flying. Dr. Czeisler, can that present a problem?

CZEISLER: Yes. Trying to shift the timing of when you're sleeping and waking greatly degrades the ability to maintain consolidated sleep. And Stacey is right that some consistency in the schedule would greatly improve the ability to adapt to that schedule and to get the rest that you need.

CONAN: We're talking with Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. Also with us, Bart Jansen, USA Today reporter who covers the Transportation Safety Administration and the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration. Yesterday, they issued new rules on pilot fatigue mandating longer rests, except for cargo pilots. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Dr. Czeisler, from what I can read of your and other research, we would all be better off if people in dangerous jobs, stressful jobs - like air traffic controllers and pilots - only worked during daylight hours. That's not going to happen.

CZEISLER: That's right. And so that's why we need to develop strategies to mitigate the fatigue associated with working at night. And one of those strategies is to make sure that people don't have sleep disorders that can interfere with their ability to stay awake even during the daytime and not just during at night. And that's why I'm a little disappointed in this rule that it doesn't mandate screening for obstructive sleep apnea, which is the most common sleep disorder in pilots whose body mass index exceeds a certain level, so it puts them in the overweight or obese category.

CONAN: So those people even though they may be in bed and snoring for the requisite number of hours, they're not getting the rest.

CZEISLER: Exactly. And that increases, for example, motor vehicle crashes by a couple of hundred percent in terms of the risks, and we would expect that that would greatly interfere with their ability to sustain alertness while flying a plane as well.

CONAN: Just a quick question, Bart Jansen, how big a deal was this for the Department of Transportation to get these new regulations through? Obviously, it's been three years since that Buffalo crash.

JANSEN: Yes. And Secretary LaHood acknowledged that it took too long, that he wished it would been faster, and that there still remains work to be done, as he plans to meet with the cargo executives in January to try to encourage them to participate voluntarily. But he also noted that, you know, the last changes in these rules were 1985, that he said people have been talking about doing this for 25 years, and they hadn't done a dang thing. But that they finally got it done, and that it was that crash, which he called his worst day on the job, to get it across the finish line.

CONAN: Let's see we get one more caller in. This is Steve. Steve with us from St. Petersburg.

STEVE: Hi. Yeah. I wanted to relate an incident that happened to me. I'm not a pilot, but I was a detective in the New York City Police Department. I had an hour commute to work, and we had a case where I was on duty for about 32 hours. And at 3 o'clock in the morning, I'm heading home. I have no remembrance of crossing the Nassau County line into Suffolk County. But one of the patrol officers in Suffolk County recognized my car, and as I went by about 75 miles an hour on the Long Island Expressway, he realized I was sound asleep with my eyes open.

And it's a straight run out there, thank God. And I was going down the highway for about eight miles, he flashed - he didn't use his siren, but he flashed his lights into my mirror and awakened me. It took about eight miles, he said, to do that. But I - excuse me. He knew I was fast asleep with my eyes open.

CONAN: Steve, you are one lucky duck.

STEVE: I certainly am. And I made sure that that never happened again.

CONAN: And, Dr. Czeisler, he reminds us it's not just air traffic controllers. It's not just pilots. This is for a lot of people.

CZEISLER: That's true, and he's described a phenomenon called sleep driving. And if you - there was an incident where it was filmed for 30 minutes on I-25 in Denver a couple of years ago a woman sleep driving. It's part of the brain. The prefrontal cortex can be asleep, and that's the judgment area of the brain, while the other part of the brain that carries out routine highly over-learned tasks like driving can keep going and negotiate turns and so on, but you may be running people off of the road as this is happening or even driving toward emergency vehicles because people in that state tend to drive toward flashing lights and so on. So he is quite lucky indeed.

CONAN: Steve, we're glad you're OK.

STEVE: OK. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And thanks to our guests, Bart Jansen of USA Today who covers the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, he was here with us in Studio 3A. Dr. Czeisler, appreciate your time today.

CZEISLER: Thank you so much, Neal.

JANSEN: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Charles Czeisler is a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and joined us from a studio on the campus there in Cambridge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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