Should Pilots be Allowed to Nap During Flights?

Have you ever been truly sleep deprived? I'm talking "walking zombie" -- as in, really, really tired. Know what that's like?

Parents of newborns do. So do college students pulling an "all-nighter" before a big exam.

And so does a woman who prefers to remain anonymous, for reasons you'll soon see.

One of her toughest and most tiring experiences was the time she put in back-to-back 16 hour work days: "I was so physically exhausted I could barely lift my water bottle."

Fortunately, she was still mentally sharp enough to manage some pretty sophisticated controls, and good thing, too, because the woman is an airline pilot -- and tired as she was, she still had more routes to fly.


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It's a crazy system: the current Federal Aviation Administration rule states that pilots can work up to 16 hours a day, including up to eight hours of flight time during that period.

Think about it: that means pilots sometimes have just eight hours to go from the airport to home or hotel (and back again), eat a meal, shower, maybe unwind with a little TV.

Not much time left for sleep, is there? It's easy to understand why pilots sometimes simply get tired.

And sometimes they get too tired -- like the two Go! Airlines pilots who were flying from Honolulu to Hilo about 18 months ago and overshot their landing by 15 miles because both men fell asleep.

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Perhaps those pilots should have called in "sick" that day, or at least "fatigued." But they didn't. Other pilots do. It would be nice, though, if that was a decision pilots never had to make.

What can be done about this? Maybe the same thing kids in kindergarten do: get in some nap time.

Sleeping at the Controls: A Good Thing for Pilots?

The FAA wants to rewrite the flying-time rules for pilots. One proposal is to allow pilots to grab some zzz's during long-haul flights, or maybe even some not-so-long flights.

FAA spokesperson Laura Brown wants to be clear that the agency has received numerous comments and recommendations and "all are under review."

But what if? After all, nap time may not be as odd as it sounds. According to The Wall Street Journal, "several large foreign airlines, including British Airways, Qantas and some Asian carriers, have allowed one pilot at a time to catch a few minutes of shut-eye during routine cruise portions of certain flights."

Not everyone likes the idea: napping seems "stupid" to Dennis Petretti, who was an American Airlines pilot for 30 years before his retirement. He says, "How long should a nap be? And who's going to police it, tell you when to wake up?"

He believes the only solution is to shorten the punishing flight/work schedules. "But they won't do that," predicts Petretti, "because then they'd have to hire more people."

It is also questionable how much of a benefit napping would be for crews on regional carriers. These smaller airlines -- which now transport almost one out of every four air travelers in the United States -- often have hectic, choppy schedules. Our anonymous pilot flies for a regional and says, "I might fly seven short flights in a single 16-hour workday; I have no idea where I'd fit in a nap."

How would passengers feel knowing that their pilots might be napping? It depends on the passenger. Karen Morrison, of Houston, who racks up tens of thousands of flight miles each year, said her first reaction was: "Yikes! Hearing about pilots napping in flight doesn't exactly engender confidence." But she calmed down once she learned no one proposed ever leaving a cockpit "unattended."

Frequent flier Eric H. Doss of Beaufort, S.C., isn't worried about onboard slumber parties: "We're not talking about these pilots taking an Ambien and a nightcap. If sleep science experts support naps, is there that much more to discuss?"

Should Pilots Be Allowed to Nap in the Cockpit?

Studies have shown that naps are excellent fatigue busters, but Kate Hanni, the founder of, says pilots deserve more than "micro-sleep" in the cockpit. She wants them to get a full eight hours behind the door of a hotel room, adding, "What if US Airways Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger was napping when they hit the birds? What if he'd only had four hours of sleep the night before the 'Miracle on the Hudson' landing?"

What if, indeed? Clearly, the system needs to change -- and naps may or may not be part of the ultimate solution. The FAA hopes to have some solution in place by the end of this year.

I hope so. When I get on my 6 a.m. plane, maybe I've been up all night working, but please don't tell me that's what my pilot's been doing. I want to know that my pilot has been doing nothing more arduous than counting sheep.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.