When pilots doze off at the controls, disaster can strike.
Pilots unions and airline representatives were holding two separate meetings today in Washington and Arlington, Va., to discuss what some call the increasing problem of pilot fatigue.
Airline surveys show that as many as nine in 10 pilots have dozed off in the cockpit briefly at one time or another, and research from NASA says 15 percent to 20 percent of all airline accidents are caused by pilot fatigue.
When an American Airlines jet went down in Little Rock two years ago, killing 11 people, the pilot had been on duty nearly 14 hours. Minutes before, he reportedly joked, "make sure to slap me, make sure I'm awake."
Fatigue was also blamed for a 1997 crash in Guam that left 228 people dead, and a 1990 crash over New York City that left 73 dead.
Experts say part of the problem is that more pilots are called on to work longer shifts because there's been a boom in flying and airplane ridership. That explosion has outpaced airport capacity, in turn causing delays.
There's also been a shift in flying towards the late night to predawn hours, they say, when human performance is more degraded.
Not Enough Rest
It's well understood that there's a problem, but there doesn't seem to be much common ground.
Under current federal law, pilots cannot be on duty more than 16 hours at a stretch or at the controls more than eight, and they must get an eight-hour break between shifts.
But Capt. Richard Rubin, a 20-year veteran pilot for American Airlines and a member of his union's safety committee, said that wasn't enough.
He said that's because the eight hours includes the transportation back and forth to the airport, the time to check in at the hotel, eating, hygiene, and anything else that needs to be done.
Pilots are so exhausted they sometimes fall into "microsleep," said Rubin, which he described as the threshold between consciousness and sleep. "The eyes don't have to be closed," Rubin said. "You look over, it looks like the lights are on but nobody's home."
"You're pushing the normal human performance," Rubin said. "You're fighting the natural physiological power that's very strong."
He said he's even nodded off in the cockpit, and that many pilots simply try to fight the impulse by drinking coffee or having stimulating conversations.
Airlines Suing to Stop Regulation
Last fall, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would close a loophole that allows some pilots to remain on duty, awake an unlimited number of hours, for example, if a flight is delayed by bad weather.
Researchers say being awake 22 hours slows the reflexes as much as being legally drunk.
But the airlines are suing to stop the change, saying a strict limit will drive up their costs and will not make flying any safer.
In any case, Rubin said, it's a problem that demands attention. "Pilot fatigue is a growing threat," he said. "I think it's probably the number-one threat that is compromising aviation safety today."