We hear a lot these days about pilot fatigue. Is exhaustion really a concern, and what can be done about it?

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Crew fatigue has long been a serious issue. It has been cited as a contributing cause in several accidents, including the 1999 crash of American Airlines flight 1420, at Little Rock, Arkansas, and that of Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009. The airlines and FAA have been very resistant to the tightening of flight and duty time regulations, with even small changes facing opposition by carriers and their lobbyists. It wasn’t until December 2011 that the FAA finally got around to unveiling a comprehensive package of changes that, while imperfect, were a welcome and positive step.

In my opinion, too much of the agency’s focus has been on long-haul flying. The circadian-scrambling effects of a twelve- or fourteen-hour nonstop are indeed of concern, but it’s also true that long-haul fatigue is comparatively easy to manage. Long-haul pilots don’t fly as often, and these flights carry augmented crews with comfortable onboard rest facilities. The more serious problem is at the other end of the spectrum: short-haul regional flying. Regional pilots fly punishing schedules, operating multiple legs in and out of busy airports, often in the worst weather, followed by short layovers at dodgy motels. I’ll take a twelve-hour red-eye ocean crossing followed by seventy-two hours at the Marriott any day over having to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and fly six legs in a turboprop, with eight hours of supposed rest at the Holiday Inn Express.

And it isn’t cockpit time per se that presents the toughest challenges. The real menaces are long stretches of duty time and the often-short layovers between them. On a given workday, a pilot might log only two hours on the flight deck. Sounds like an easy assignment, except when those two hours come at either end of a twelve-hour duty stretch that began at 5:00 a.m., the bulk of which was spent waiting out delays and killing time in the terminal.

In FAA-speak, the layover buffers between assignments are called “rest periods.” Until the changes unveiled in 2011, a rest period could be as brief as nine hours, and the very definition of “rest” itself had failed to account for things like travel time to and from hotels, the need for meals, and so on. If a crew signed off in Chicago at 9:00 p.m. and was scheduled to sign on again at 5:00 a.m., that constituted an eight-hour rest. But once you subtract the time spent waiting for the hotel van, driving to and from the airport, scrounging for food and so on, what existed on paper as an eight-hour layover was in reality only six or seven hours at the hotel.

Finally this has changed. Pilots will now receive a minimum ten-hour rest between assignments, with an opportunity for at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. This provision was long overdue, but nonetheless is one of the smartest things the FAA has ever done.

Meanwhile, I disagree with the contention that high-tech cockpit automation exacerbates fatigue. Pilots grow complacent and bored, we’re told, to the point of shirking their duties and in some cases falling asleep, thanks to the low-workload environment in a modern cockpit. It’s a persuasive argument, but my feeling is that boredom and automation have relatively little to do with one another. Or, more to the point, they haven’t any more to do with one another than they’ve had in the past. Pilots are at times extremely busy; at other times there are long periods of quiet. Duties come and go, ebb and flow. It has always been that way. Boredom was a factor sixty years ago, when planes had rudimentary autopilots and propellers spun by pistons. It’s going to be a factor in any profession where there are long stretches of reduced workload—such as when flying across oceans—and when a large percentage of tasks become repetitive and routine. I operate eight-, nine-, even twelve-hour nonstops all the time. There’s a certain tedium that I expect and have to deal with. But it’s hardly the fault of automation. Heck, if I had to have my hands on the wheel that whole time, expending full concentration, by the end of the trip I’d be five times as bored and ten times as exhausted.

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