Controlled naps for pilots opposed by FAA


U.S. regulators aren’t likely to let airline pilots take so-called controlled naps in cockpits as part of an overhaul of rest regulations, the Federal Aviation Administration’s head of safety said today.

“I don’t expect we will be proposing” the naps, Peggy Gilligan, an FAA associate administrator, told the Senate aviation subcommittee in Washington. Pilots should come to work ready to fly their full shift without naps, she said.

The comments suggest the U.S. won’t join Canada, France and Australia in allowing pilots to take short naps during non- critical phases of flight. U.S. airlines, pilots and safety advocates have endorsed the practice as a way to prevent pilots from unintentionally falling asleep.

The FAA began rewriting regulations governing pilot fatigue this year after airline accidents, such as one near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people, raised concerns about rest. The new rules will be finished next year rather than by Dec. 31 because they are taking longer than expected, Gilligan said.

“On occasion a pilot may unexpectedly feel extra fatigued,” Bill Voss, president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, told the panel. “It is far safer to have a procedure in place to allow the fatigued pilot to sleep for a prescribed amount of time with the full knowledge of the co-pilot.”

The trade group for U.S. carriers, including Delta Air Lines Inc., AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and Southwest Airlines Co., said federal research provides “overwhelming” evidence that controlled naps cut fatigue risk.

“We must act on that evidence,” Basil Barimo, a vice president for the Washington-based Air Transport Association, told the panel.

All-Night Commute

The National Transportation Safety Board is examining evidence that may point to cockpit-crew fatigue before the crash of a Pinnacle Airlines Corp. Colgan plane Feb. 12 near Buffalo. The flight had taken off from Newark, New Jersey.

The pilot, Marvin Renslow, 47, logged into a company computer system at 3:10 a.m. the day of the crash, and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, 24, commuted to work all night from Seattle, where she lived with her parents, according to the NTSB. The agency is still investigating the accident.

“It appears to me neither of them had a night’s sleep,” said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, who chaired the panel’s hearing on pilot fatigue today.

Two pilots for Mesa Air Group Inc.’s Go! fell asleep Feb. 13, 2008, while flying from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii, before landing safely, the NTSB concluded in August. The plane went 30 miles past its destination before reversing course, and the pilots were out of touch with air-traffic controllers for 25 minutes.

‘Last-Ditch Effort’

The Air Line Pilots Association, with 53,000 members the world’s largest pilot union, supports controlled naps as “a last ditch effort” to ensure pilots are alert through flights, said John Prater, the group’s president.

Current federal rest rules limit pilots to flying no more than eight hours a day, though they can work up to 16 hours, including ground time between flights.

The FAA’s rule revisions will include a “sliding scale,” so that pilots can work longer on long-distance international flights and shorter if they do many takeoffs and landings in a shift or fly overnight, the FAA’s Gilligan said.

The agency hasn’t yet decided on the individual hour targets for the different types of flying, she said. The FAA is also examining how to address pilot commuting, whether by including requirements in the rule or providing guidance to carriers as to best practices, Gilligan said.