A former veteran commercial airline pilot lived for more than a year at the beginning of his career in and out of a bare-bones "crash pad" and was so tired while flying that he drifted off to sleep in the cockpit, the pilot told ABC News.
Josh Reikes, who began flying in 1999, said that money was so tight in his first years that whenever he commuted to a new city before a flight, he could not afford a hotel room and opted to stay in a crash pad.
"You're bunked up with six, seven, eight people stumbling in at all hours of the night waking you up," recalled Reikes. "It's not good sleep at all. But what's the alternative?"
CLICK HERE to watch an interview with Reikes.
An ABC News investigation found that these dormitory-style rooms, designed to pack in as many airline crew members as possible, are spread out in cities across the country. After the few hours of sleep some pilots are able to snag in the crowded crash pads or on the couches and chairs of crew rooms, they report to duty and are entrusted with dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of passengers' lives. In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
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CLICK HERE to go inside a crash pad and crew lounge.
But while Reikes, "Miracle on the Hudson" captain Chesley Sullenberger and several other pilots are pushing for reform to ensure pilots get proper rest at quality accommodations, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration told ABC News that airline companies deny pilots are sleeping overnight in crash pads.
CLICK HERE for undercover photos of crash pads and pilots sleeping in crew lounges.
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"We've asked very plainly to heads of all safety committees on these airlines [if] this is an issue," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said. "They're telling us it simply isn't going on."
Babbitt also said that when he was a pilot he commuted for five years and never saw pilots sleeping in crew rooms overnight.
"I was a very responsible commuter," he said. "A lot of people I know commuted. I never saw the evidence that you're talking about... So somewhere, there's a gap."
"We've asked the carriers themselves. They are their crew lounges. 'Is this going on or not?' We're not getting the kind of answer you are…I'm not sure where the gap is but they're clearly is one," Babbitt told ABC News.
CLICK HERE to watch an interview with Babbitt.
'Have You Ever Been Driving When You're Really, Really Tired?'
But Reikes and Sullenberger told ABC News that crash pad and crew lounge sleeping are facts of life for many junior pilots.
Reikes told ABC News he lived for more than a year in and out crash pads because it was the only way he could get by on his $17,000 per year starting salary at ExpressJet, which offers flights under the name Continental Express as a Continental Airlines regional carrier.
"There were about 15 of us bunking in a small hotel room," Reikes told ABC News of the crash pad he called home. "I think there were six bunks and I stowed a duffle bag... I think people were suspicious I was living there."
The kind of sleep he was afforded there caused him on more than one occasion to either deliberately take a nap in the cockpit or drift off to sleep inadvertently, Reikes said.
"I mean, have you ever been driving when you're really, really tired? You know, nodded off?" he said. "Have you ever been driving and zoned out for maybe five seconds and wandered into a lane?"
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"That's what you get with fatigue," said Reikes. "You lose concentration." Reikes said one of the ways he coped was to think of what was at stake, and how many lives were in his hands.
"There's 50 people back there, kids, parents, families," said Reikes. "When you show up tired, or you show up in any other condition that's not optimum, think about those people as your family. And I never forgot that."