Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Pilots admit they 'nod off' – and their hours are set to soar

The Independent Jonathan Brown 23 February 2012

The lives of air passengers could be put at risk by tired pilots falling asleep or making an error as a result of new European rules increasing their working hours, MPs were warned yesterday.

The pilots' union, Balpa, said that even under the present system, which limits the amount of time they can spend in the air after waking, nearly half of its members admitted nodding off in the cockpit.

Giving evidence to the Transport Select Committee, the union's head of safety, Dr Rob Hunter, said the real figure was likely to be much higher because of under-reporting by pilots who were often unaware they'd been asleep.

Balpa is opposing the harmonisation of rules between Britain and the rest of Europe which it said could lead to some pilots working for up to 22 hours at a stretch. Current safety laws limit this period to 16 and a half hours.

In a survey of 500 pilots Balpa found that 43 per cent had involuntarily fallen asleep while flying. Of these a third said they had woken to find their co-pilot slumbering as well. Even under the present system the union estimated that pilots could be landing when they had a one in five chance of falling asleep – meaning their reactions would be those of a pilot with a blood-alcohol level four times the current legal limit for flying. Balpa said the new rules would make the situation "much worse".
A crash involving a Colgan Air flight in New York three years ago, in which 50 people died, led to a change in US rules to minimise pilot fatigue.

After a sudden loss of cabin pressure pilots have 15 seconds to put on their oxygen masks before they lose consciousness. Even when flying on autopilot they must make routine checks and monitor radio transmissions.

Current0700 Pilot awakes
0800 Arrives at airport to begin shift – take-off and landing; post-flight checks
2400 Finishes shift; starts rest period including 10 hours of hotel availability
1000 Begin new shift

0700 Pilot awakes
0800 Arrives at airport and begins four hours on standby
1200 Flight begins
0400 Discretionary rest period starts
0600 Shift ends – eight-hour sleep period
1400 Begins new shift

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