Pilots sleeping in the cockpit could improve airline safety

Airline pilots are often exhausted. An extreme example happened in 2008, when a pilot and a co-pilot both fell asleep at the controls, missing their landing in Hawaii – earning pilot’s license suspensions as well as getting fired. More recently, overtired pilots came very close to landing on top of another airplane at San Francisco International Airport in 2017.

It’s not uncommon for a pilot for a major commercial airline to, for instance, start work in Florida at 5 p.m., with her first flight departing an hour later for a five-hour trip across the country, arriving in California just after 8 p.m. local time. Then she might get a short break and fly a 90-minute short-hop flight to to another California city. When she lands from this second flight, she has spent six and a half hours of the last nine in the cockpit. She is also three time zones from where she started work, and her body thinks it’s 2 a.m. There’s no doubt she’s tired – and she’s lucky not to have encountered any schedule adjustments for aircraft maintenance or weather delays.

The airline industry and the government agency that regulates it, the Federal Aviation Administration, have taken steps to reduce pilot fatigue, but many pilots and others remain worried that two pilots are required to remain awake and alert for the entire flight, though one or both may be dealing with symptoms of fatigue. One possible suggestion is letting pilots take brief naps in the cockpit. As researchers of consumer opinions about the airline industry, we’ve found that the American public is wary of this idea, but may feel better about it once they’ve heard an explanation of how it actually makes their flights safer.

[embedded content] An Air Canada plane flown by overtired pilots nearly lands on a taxiway in San Francisco in 2017.

Limiting pilots’ work time

Pilot fatigue can be difficult to predict or diagnose – especially since tired pilots usually manage to take off, fly and land safely. Even when something goes wrong, accident investigators may have little evidence of fatigue, except perhaps the sound of someone yawning on cockpit audio recordings.

In 2014, the FAA imposed the first new pilot-rest rules in 60 years, limiting overall on-duty time and flight hours per day depending on when a pilot’s shift starts. The rules also established a process by which pilots can report fatigue without being disciplined by their airlines or the government.

Resting in the cockpit

It’s widely known that a short nap can improve a pilot’s alertness. Some planes, such as those commonly used on long international flights, have beds their pilots and other crew can use, but smaller planes don’t have the space. Only flights that are longer than eight hours require an additional pilot to be on board so one pilot at a time can rotate out for rest. On shorter flights, U.S. regulations expect both pilots to remain alert for the entire length of the flight, without any chance for rest during the flight.

Some countries, including Canada and Australia, allow for pilots to nap in the cockpit. In an example from China, a pilot was caught napping and faced disciplinary action for napping in the cockpit. The official procedure to allow for pilots to nap in the cockpit is called “controlled rest in position.” CRIP has established policies and procedures to allow pilots to rest.

The rules are strict. The Air Canada Flight Operations Manual, for instance, says a pilot who wants to rest must notify the co-pilot and a flight attendant. The pilot can sleep for no more than 40 minutes, and must wake up at least half an hour before the descent for landing. They get the first 15 minutes after the nap to fully awaken, during which they can’t resume actually flying the plane, unless they need to help deal with an emergency.