Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration revoked the pilot certificates of two pilots who overshot their destination in Minneapolis by 150 miles. The pilots have claimed they were on laptop computers and became distracted, but many aviation experts insist the two must have fallen asleep.
The incident has raised questions if the FAA should allow pilots to take turns taking short naps. Airlines from other countries allow the practice, but Dr. Eric Dyken, Director of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at University of Iowa Hopsitals, isn’t so sure the proposal would “fly” in the U.S.
“You may open up a can of worms,” Dyken said. “If all the people on the plane know, ‘one of my pilots is sound asleep’ – what if the other person has a sleep problem and they both fall asleep? My thought is (the pilots) are probably doing the best they can, but there are limits to what a human being can endure.”
The issue of operator fatique is nothing new to the transportation industry, but Dyken doesn’t believe it’s been a topic of extensive research. He suggests the University of Iowa might conduct a study involving U-of-I Hospital doctors and others who often work long shifts.
“When are they best at their job? When are they safest on the job for both themselves and the patient? A lot of things that make public policy are data or research driven and we just haven’t done the research,” Dyken said. “We really don’t know how much you can push any given individual before you reach the breaking point.” Dyken tells his patients that they should try to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.
“The statistics show that if you get much less than 7 or much more than 9, you probably have some other sleep related problems, health-related pathologies, that lead to early death and health related issues,” Dyken said. The Northwest Airlines Flight 188 from San Diego, California to Minneapolis on October 21 included 144 passengers. The pilots landed the plane safely, but over one hour late in Minneapolis. Dyken made his comments on the Iowa Public Radio program “Talk of Iowa.”