Tired Skies: Pilot Fatigue and 'Crash Pads' Threaten The Safety Of Airline Passengers

PHOTO: Because airline crew members can make as little as $17,000 a year but are often based in expensive hub cities like New York, they often commute from a less expensive home city to the base airport.
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Despite denials from the airline industry, large numbers of pilots report to duty every day after getting only a few hours of what fatigue experts call "destructive sleep" in crowded crew lounges and so-called "crash pads," an ABC News investigation has found. Widespread pilot fatigue is putting airline passengers at risk, say critics, and may already have cost lives.

Current and former pilots described missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep in mid-flight in the report to be broadcast tonight on "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline".

Former Continental Express pilot Josh Reikes says one captain warned him, "Don't you ever let me wake up and find you sleeping."

America's most famous pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, doubts he could have landed his stricken U.S. Airways jet safely in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard, if he had been sleep-deprived.

"Had we been tired, had we not gotten sufficient rest the night before," said Sullenberger, "we could not have performed at the same level."

Sullenberger says fatigue is an industry-wide problem that "needs to be fixed, and has needed to be fixed for 30 years."

"We have to create a situation in which it's possible" for pilots to get a good, affordable night's sleep, he said. "We have to value this profession enough that people don't have to live out of a crash pad or a crew room."

CLICK HERE to go inside a crash pad and crew lounge.

Dr. Martin Moore-Ede, a fatigue expert who consults for airlines, unions and the government, said that it would be hard for pilots to get adequate rest in the kinds of places where many try to sleep.

"Good sleeping occurs in a dark room, a quiet room, a room that's cool in temperature, and a room where there is no intrusive noise," said Dr. Moore-Ede. "That does not describe a crew lounge."

FAA Administrator: 'They're Telling Us It Simply Isn't Going On'

Undercover video of crew lounges taken by pilots and provided to ABC News shows pilots asleep in chairs and on sofas. The practice is contrary to airline rules -- and also contradicts what the head of the Federal Aviation Adminstration says he's been told by industry representatives.

"We're getting a different answer than you're getting, so somewhere there's a gap," FAA administrator Randy Babbitt told ABC News. "We asked the carriers themselves -- they're their crew lounges -- is this going on or not? We're not getting the kind of answer you are."

Said Babbitt, "They're telling us it simply isn't going on."

Sullenberger, who retired after his famous Hudson landing in January 2009, says that it is going on. He called fatigue a "big concern," and said, "Our passengers deserve better."

When asked if he feared something bad could come out of pilot fatigue, Sullenberger said, "It has already happened."

In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the NTSB. There have been near misses, like a Mesa Airlines flight from Honolulu destined for Hilo, Hawaii, with 40 passengers and three crew aboard on Feb. 13, 2008, nearly a year to the day before the Continental 3407 crash. The plane flew past its destination without landing and headed out over the Pacific. The NTSB found that both pilots had fallen asleep and did not respond to calls from controllers for 18 minutes.

The ABC News report comes two years after the crash in Buffalo of Continental Connection flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, that killed 50 people. The pilot of the plane, who commuted to his Newark base from Florida, had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark airport, raising concerns about the role of fatigue with safety investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board. The co-pilot had commuted to work on overnight flights from Seattle and also tried to sleep in the crew lounge, unable to afford a hotel room.

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"We did recognize that they were likely impaired by fatigue," says Deborah Hersman, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB also found that about 70 percent of the Colgan Air pilots based at Newark were commuters, many coming from long distances to work. Approximately 20 percent commuted from more than 1,000 miles away.

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Victim's Father: 'I'm Infuriated It Hasn't Changed'

Two years later, little seems to have changed, based on what ABC News found.

"I'm infuriated it hasn't changed," said John Kausner, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Elly in the flight 3407 crash. The families who lost loved ones were in Washington D.C. Tuesday to urge Congress and the FAA to act.

"If airlines know their pilot is traveling they should be responsible for giving proper rest the evening before," said Kausner. "They should be responsible for making sure their pilots are fresh. It's common sense."

The so-called "crash pads" can be found within blocks of most major airports, part of an underground world that is secret only to the public. Inside one crash pad near LaGuardia airport in New York, stacks of triple-decker bunk beds are crammed into a room. There are 28 beds in all in a three-story row home -- "hot bunks" that rent for $25 a night.

"That's who their pilot is going to be," said one current pilot flying for a regional airline who took undercover videos and photos from inside airport crew lounges in New York and Philadelphia. "Do they want a well-rested pilot when they take that 6 a.m. flight out of Washington D.C. or do you want a guy who just slept in the crew room?"

Photos and video provided to ABC News by concerned pilots show where many are getting their rest at base, often in expensive hub cities where hotels and apartments -- even crash pads -- are expensive.

While many seasoned pilots say they can commute responsibly, arriving at their base city the day of their trip, other less senior pilots told ABC News they simply can't always afford to commute safely and arrive rested and ready to go.

"I see no way in the world that you could ask someone to make less than $20,000 per year and afford an apartment or a home or nightly hotel rooms in a city like Newark," says Josh Verde, an airline pilot who quit his job at Express Jet last year. "There's just no way to do it."

Verde says the airlines know what's going on and understand it's an impossible request. "They just sort of say, you know, 'Figure it out.' " Airlines do provide hotel rooms during the middle of an actual trip, Verde says. But it's the night before the start of a trip that pilots are often scrambling for sleep.

'It's A Horrible Situation For Pilots'

The FAA's proposed rule-making on flight-time/duty-time will do some things to help tired pilots. The rules will increase the mandatory rest period pilots, currently 8 hours, and decrease the maximum length of a pilot's work day, which is currently 16 hours. But in some cases, the number of hours a pilot can fly each day could increase.

Congress passed a law last August requiring that the FAA address pilot fatigue, among other safety issues raised by the Colgan crash by an August 2011 deadline. But the law does not require the FAA to address the issue of "commuting," or of sleeping arrangements for airline crews. Instead. it calls for a study by the National Academy of Sciences, to be completed this summer.

Neither the Airline Pilots Association, the country's largest pilot union, nor the airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, would sit down with ABC News for an interview on fatigue and commuting pilots, though Jean Medina of the ATA provided a written statement.

"The safety of our customers and our employees is our top priority, and we agree with the FAA that pilots must act responsibly, and only fly when rested," wrote Medina. "Our industry's outstanding safety record is a result of the strong commitment of all stakeholders, including our professional flight crews who understand their obligation to report to work rested and prepared to fly."

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Linda Shotwell, head of ALPA communications, thanked ABC News for requesting an interview on pilot fatigue, but said in an email, "Unfortunately, we do not have anyone available at this time."

Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter Lorin, 30, in the Buffalo accident, says something needs to be done to fix this impasse. "It's a horrible situation for pilots. These two areas, pilots and industry need to work closer together. And if they can't get that done, then it's up to our government to step in and intercede and make something happen."

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