Sleep Deprivation Among Pilots: How Common Is It? – Aeronautics Online

Frankie Wallace is a freelance journalist with an interest in aviation news and politics. Wallace graduated from University of Montana’s Journalism School and currently resides in Boise, Idaho. The views expressed in this article are solely his and do not represent those of Aeronautics Online.

In 2012, JetBlue made headlines when one of its longtime pilots, Clayton Osbourne, had a theatrical episode mid-flight. He was subdued by a passenger, and the plane — originally on its way to Las Vegas — was diverted to Amarillo, Texas. According to ABC, a psychologist in court testified that Osbourne had a “brief psychotic disorder” due to sleep deprivation. Though JetBlue disputed this claim, the instance still opened up a public conversation about pilot sleep schedules.

Unfortunately, this instance isn’t an isolated mishap due to a sleep-deprived vehicle operator. Fatigue has been known to cause car accidents and even lead drivers to road rage. In the case of flying however, the amount of passengers using commercial airlines makes the seriousness of sleepy driving even more salient.

This is partially due to the fact that work hours are typically unconventional for professional vehicle operators. In the case of aviation, this can have dire consequences on pilots‘ brains and bodies. If pilot sleep deprivation is really a problem, how serious is it and what might the solution be?

The Truth About Pilot Sleep Deprivation

Regarding a 2013 plane crash that killed five people, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spoke mournfully yet coldly. “This pilot’s inadequate knowledge of his aircraft was compounded by his fatigue. As a result, five people died who did not have to.” In this case, the pilot reportedly failed to follow proper procedures and ignored aircraft warnings while trying to land, causing a wreck.

But while he may have exemplified “inadequate knowledge” in the words of the NTSB chairman, that’s not always the case for sleep-deprived plane operators. In the aforementioned JetBlue case, Osbourne was a 12-year experienced veteran with a spotless record. Both pilots in these situations experienced sleep deprivation, regardless of their expertise.

Unfortunately, these cases aren’t one offs. They represent a greater amount of aviation professionals who may or may not have put others at risk due to fatigue. According to the National Sleep Foundation and reported by Huffpost:

  • 23% of pilots have had their jobs affected by sleeplessness.
  • 20% admitted to “serious” errors due to their fatigue.
  • 50% reported rarely getting a good amount of sleep on work nights.
  • 37% said their work schedule didn’t allow them to sleep well.
  • Only 6% had the same schedule day-in and day-out.

When airlines run their pilot’s bodies rampant, they’re putting nature to the test and risking the lives of many passengers. Still, we see this worker abuse continue. New information from the Biological Rhythm Research showed that pilots are often kept awake for 24 hours, and after 15 they begin to lose their expert edge.

What Sleep Deprivation Does To A Pilot

It’s been shown that fatigue from lack of sleep may have major consequences for one’s mental health. Without a proper work-life balance in which rest and sleep are achievable, pilots may be risking their own mental stability. Again, this puts them and their passengers at risk, as well as their co-pilots and staff members.

Though one would think this has been safeguarded against by the aviation industry, the amount of pilot fatigue is very well documented. Notably, a potential pilot must prove they don’t have a disorder such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome before receiving their pilot’s license. As explained on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website, aviation medical examiners (APE) are to look for sleep disorders in potential pilots. They emphasize the importance of  “restorative sleep, which [is] needed for pilots to safely perform their duties.”

However, there are cases in which pilots have been licensed and then shown symptoms of these disorders later. The FAA claims that they tackle this as swiftly as possible once pilots exhibit said symptoms. Yet there are still many documented cases of plane crashes due to sleep disorders by one or both of the pilots on duty.

Possible Treatments

Due to the seriousness of their profession, it’s mandatory that pilots have Class One Medical certificates that are renewed within regulated time restraints. But a lot can happen between checkups. If a pilot believes themselves to be unexplainably tired or sleep-deprived, they should see an APE. If a medical examiner prescribes medication, they should also be consulted about the safety of piloting aircraft while taking it. This includes natural remedies like CBD oil, melatonin, and other over the counter sleep aids.

These are just some ways to hopefully correct the sleeping patterns pilots face. The structural aspect of pilot scheduling may be doing more harm than these and should still be addressed regardless of an individual pilot’s health. Without some sort of institutional change, research shows that aviation operators may still be putting people at risk.

Featured image courtesy of David Xian / Aeronautics Online