Job Safety

April 27, 2010

FAA Still Not Getting It

Pilot Fatigue/Sleep Monitoring Program Largely Ignored by FAA/NTSB
Article Source: – Pilot Fatigue/Sleep Monitoring Program Largely Ignored by FAA/NTSB

With more than 250 air crashes in the last 15 years linked to pilot fatigue or sleep deprivation issues, it seems our own Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) as well as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been asleep in their administrative duties. A March 11, 2010 article from WBZTV discloses that data “collected from NASA, the FAA, and the NTSB showed that “over the past five years there have been 689 incidents where pilot fatigue caused a safety concern or a crash.” Documents tell of pilots nodding off on approaches and even landing on the wrong runways or taxiways. Pilots are sometimes allowed to work 16 hours in a day, though only eight can be in the cockpit. One retired commercial airline pilot admitted, “I can remember more than one time waking up while we were in route. I had been asleep, looking at the clock, looking at the watch, I had been asleep for 20 minutes, 30 minutes.”

Despite the uptick in reports of fatigue and sleep linked accidents, all we continue to hear from the FAA and the NTSB are empty promises of coming changes. In June of 2009 Randy Babbitt (current FAA Administrator) pledged to change pilot regulations, most of which have been in effect since the 1940s. He told reporter Nancy Cordes in her article for CBS News, “We’re gonna have a tough decision to make and I don’t mind making it.” The only recent change to policy has been his approval for pilots to use antidepressant medications on the job. The most common side effects of antidepressants are drowsiness, dizziness and sleep problems, including insomnia. Mr. Babbitt feels that “culture change” and tolerance for those afflicted with depression are more important than the safety of the millions flying the skies. The FAA’s mission statement is “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” The FAA’s vision statement is “to improve the safety and efficiency of flight. We are responsive to our customers and are accountable to the taxpayer and the flying public.” The recent antidepressant policy change as well as the continued delay in amending pilot work hour regulations seriously conflict with the FAA’s stated mission and vision objectives.

While our own FAA and NTSB are asleep at the “stick”, allowing the airlines to continue to overwork their pilots, most of the international safety boards are joining them in the bunkhouse. The CBC in Canada reported in a March 2010 article that “Twenty-eight people have died in a dozen plane crashes across Canada over the past decade in which fatigue was cited as a possible factor.” The Canadian Transportation Safety Board reports note “pilot-fatigue-related issues in six deadly crashes and in an additional six accidents – including the Air France crash in Toronto – where all on board survived.” Canadian regulations allow pilots to be on duty for 14 hours, or 17 in “unforeseen circumstances.” Barry Wiszniowski, a pilot and expert with the Air Canada Pilots Association, says this about regulations in Canada, “Ours haven’t been modified since 1995 and prior to that in the ‘40s.”Martin Eley, head of civil aviation at Transport Canada, after initially dismissing pilot fatigue complaints from unions, says, “we’ve certainly moved on…in June, we are tabling the terms of reference for a working group to actually start looking at the current science and looking at where we need to update our regulations.” He noted that “it will likely take a couple of years before the rules change.” A 2001 study recommended six changes to work regulations. Four of the six were ignored by Transport Canada. The changes were to address duty schedules relative to circadian rhythm effects on sleep.

Drew Dawson, an expert on fatigue in the workplace, makes the frightening statement:

“There’s nothing like a smoking hole in the ground to address attention.”

Pilot Kent Wien, in, accused the NTSB of “glossing over fatigue” as the cause of the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, New York last year. They placed total blame on the pilot’s inabilty to properly handle a stall. The crash killed 50 people and the NTSB overlooked the fact that both the pilot and the co-pilot had little sleep in the 24 hours prior to their flight. They placed total blame on inadequate flight simulator training. Robert Sumwalt, one of the NTSB investigators in the case, refused to allow fatigue as a contributing factor saying, “just because the crew was fatigued, that doesn’t mean it was a factor in their performance.” Sleep deprivation studies have proven that performance levels and response speeds for sleep deprived individuals are equivalent or worse than blood alcohol levels of 0.05%. A British Medical Journal study concluded that fatigue does affect performance, finding that, “getting less than 6 hours a night can affect coordination, reaction time, and judgment” and poses “a very serious risk” to drivers.” The NTSB , like the FAA, chooses to ignore the fatigue and sleep deprivation issues jeopardizing the air safety they are charged to protect.

While air transport safety boards and accident investigators overlook fatigue and sleep deprivation as a cause of human error disasters, Air New Zealand has been monitoring and analyzing fatigue, sleep, and fatigue countermeasures since 1998. “Air New Zealand was one of the first airlines in the world to introduce a policy for controlled rest on the flight deck (cockpit napping).” The policy was supported by the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand. It allows for a fatigued crew member to take a 45 minute nap after a briefing of the crew members as to time of waking. “No course changes, altitude changes or fuel transfers are permitted during this period.” The napping is only permitted for 2, 3, and 4=person crews. The fatigue management program has full support of airline management and union groups. Fatigue report forms from pilots detailing excess fatigue, possible causes and remedies are passed to Flight Operations management for possible action or comment and are then analyzed by a Flight Crew Fatigue Study Group (FCFSG) monthly. The group looks for patterns and problems with particular duties and routes.

Pilots participating in studies wear a “Sleepwatch” on the wrist. The sleepwatch measures wrist activity. It provides information on “timing and quality of sleep.” Three questionnaires are utilized in-flight. Fatigue Visual Analogue Scales rate how pilots feel. A Profile of Mood States asks pilots to score certain words based on their moods. The Stanford Sleepiness Scale scores word pictures of the individual’s fatigue feelings. The questionnaires are short and only require a few minutes of their time. The pilots then take a quick test called the Psychomotor Vigilance Task in which they have to extinguish a randomly flashing light in a small box by pushing a button using his or her thumb. The notebook sized black box measures and records performance and alertness rankings. More importantly it measures “lapses” which took more than 500 milliseconds to accomplish. The FCFSG has taken the data from these studies and has modified “flight and duty time limitations that are considered safe and acceptable on the basis of reliable data.” The group hopes to go pro-active in the future to advise tours of duty before they are introduced instead of modifying them after studies and reports have been completed. The FCFSG has decided to forgo the marketing of their system and they have opened it to the public domain “for the betterment of flight safety in the International Aviation Community.”

On March 22, 2010 the United States Senate unanimously passed the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act (S.1451) by a margin of 93-0. Chairman Rockefeller made airline safety a “top priority in the bill.” It requires the FAA to “revise the flight and duty time regulations for commercial air carrier pilots and issue the final rule within one year to address pilot fatigue. The existing FAA guidelines on flight time and duty limitations were established in the 1940s without significant modification.” Chairman Rockefeller in a press release of December 2009 said, “Addressing pilot fatigue is an issue for which it has taken far too long to achieve meaningful reform. The travelling public deserves a better effort to make certain any plane on which they fly has an alert and well rested flight crew.”

Fatigue, sleep deprivation, and their effects on our safety in the air have been sufficiently documented. It is time for the FAA, the NTSB, and their partnered agencies across the globe to wake up and to follow the lead of New Zealand Air. Millions of lives are at stake. They should not need any more “smoking holes in the ground” to wake up from the sleep paralysis that’s been plaguing them for years.
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