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Asleep in the cockpit


 • Web Sites:
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada 

    From Saturday's Globe and Mail

    Airline pilots say they are falling asleep in the cockpit, in part because Canada's limits on how long a pilot can be at the controls are among the most liberal in the world.

    It is just one frightening example of how fatigue jeopardizes public safety in the transportation industry, whether on airplanes, highways or railway lines.

    Experts warn the problem could result in a major accident as the pressure to travel long distances under monotonous conditions puts lives at risk when transportation workers struggle to stay awake.

    "The more you look at the decline in people's abilities when they become fatigued with the obvious example being falling asleep behind the wheel we're just very lucky that we haven't had more accidents than we've had," said Dr. Ron Heselgrave, who studies fatigue at Toronto's University Health Network.

    Engineers with Canada's railways say the unscheduled nature of their work means they can be in control of 7,200-tonne trains after being awake for as much as 24 hours.

    The federal committee charged with transportation issues is studying new rules that would allow truckers to regularly work 84 hours a week.

    And an unscientific survey published on a Web site for airline employees found that 70 per cent of Canadian pilots who responded have fallen asleep at least once while on duty. Of those, 93 per cent say they have fallen asleep more than once.

    Several pilots contacted by The Globe and Mail said the results of the survey correspond with their own experience.

    "If you're smart, you lock the cockpit door and say: 'You take an hour now.' And then . . . the other guy takes an hour. And then you're both refreshed for the landing," said Don Paxton, an Air Canada captain who flies Airbus A320s across North America.

    "It's highly illegal to do that. That's why you lock the cockpit door."

    There have even been times when both pilots have fallen asleep. In the 1980s, a U.S. cargo plane headed for Los Angeles flew for nearly an hour over the Pacific Ocean before air traffic controllers could wake the pilots.

    "We make jokes about the wrinkles on our forehead from raising our eyebrows and the slashes we get from nodding off and slashing our poor heads on the glare shield. It happens. I've been there where I just can't remember the last three or four minutes," said Don Hudson, an Airbus A340 pilot who flies primarily between Vancouver and Asia.

    The U.S. National Transportation Board recently cited crew fatigue as one of the top safety issues facing all modes of transportation.

    And sometimes the results can be deadly. Investigators cited fatigue as a factor in one of the worst aviation disasters in Canadian history, when a charter plane carrying U.S. military personnel crashed and burned in Gander, Nfld., in 1985, killing all 256 on board.

    Investigators determined that the flight crew had exceeded flight-time limitations twice in the days leading up to the accident. They also noted that had the crew completed the flight, they would have been on duty for almost 20 continuous hours.

    Air Canada refused to say whether its pilots are falling asleep on duty, citing employee confidentiality. The airline said its pilots are professional people who conduct themselves accordingly.

    Nevertheless, research shows that altitude, low oxygen and a lack of mental stimulation combine to create a situation where pilots must struggle to remain alert.

    In a 1994 study by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, nine airline pilots were wired with medical monitoring devices and accompanied by observers. Despite being told that their alertness was being evaluated and that they should not take naps, four of the nine fell asleep at the controls.

    Pilots use a variety of techniques to fight fatigue. Some pull down the oxygen mask and take a deep breath. Others loosen the shoulder strap on their seat belts so that if they do fall asleep at the controls and slump forward, the force of hitting the belt will snap them back to reality.

    But there are times, pilots say, when the fatigue is so bad that they just cannot stay awake over shifts that can last up to 17 hours.

    "You're doing some head bobs when the sun's in your eyes. You've had a long day and your body rhythms are telling you you need sleep. Maybe you doze off for anywhere from 60 seconds to three or four minutes," said a pilot with Air Ontario.

    Pilots say one reason they are so tired is that Canada's rules on how long they can be at the controls are among the most liberal in the world.

    In Canada, a pilot's scheduled duty day can last up to 14 hours. It can be extended to 17 hours for unforeseen operational circumstances, subject to certain conditions.

    The United States also has a 14-hour maximum duty day, but makes a distinction between overall duty time and time at the controls, which Canada does not. This means that a pilot with a Canadian airline can be at the controls for more than 12 hours in addition to pre- and postflight duties, compared with a maximum of eight in the United States and New Zealand and 10 hours in Brazil.

    On transcontinental flights, airlines carry extra pilots so everybody has a chance to rest. But while U.S. carriers are required to carry four pilots on a 12-hour, 15-minute flight, a Canadian carrier needs only two.

    And while the U.S. provisions require fully trained extra pilots, Canadian regulations call only for a "cruise pilot," who can fly the plane at cruising altitude but isn't fully trained in taking off or landing the plane.

    Union provisions offer some pilots additional protection. At Air Canada, for example, pilots can be at the controls for up to 11 hours during a day flight or 7 hours for an overnight flight.

    But pilots say that even with these fortified rest rules, they have trouble keeping awake. And they say duty times are a safety issue to be dealt with by government not something to be negotiated away at the bargaining table.

    Transport Canada is currently reviewing its rules on flight-duty times. It says it is always looking at ways to make its rules safer, but said Canada's rules are already as safe as those in other countries.

    Air-traffic controllers admit that they, too, have fallen asleep on duty as a result of fatigue.

    "There have been incidents in the past where people have nodded off, particularly on the midnight shifts where they're not getting the rest or the relief they should be getting," said Rob Thurgur, president-elect of the Canadian Auto Workers local that represents controllers.

    The Transportation Safety Board of Canada cited fatigue as a cause in a 1999 incident in which air traffic controllers allowed two Boeing 767s to come too close to each other in the sky west of Winnipeg.

    Nav Canada, which runs Canada's air-traffic control system, acknowledges that air-traffic controllers fall asleep on duty, but said such instances are extremely rare.

    While images of drowsy pilots and air-traffic controllers will strike fear in the most confident of travellers, it is important to remember that air travel in Canada is extremely safe. More than 40 million people boarded commercial airlines in Canada last year, but there were no fatalities from accidents on commercial carriers.

    Still, there is a sense the aviation industry is much more concerned about the safety of its aircraft than in ensuring the alertness of those who fly them. After all, tired pilots don't need to be asleep to be dangerous. One study, conducted at the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine, found that after being awake for 18 hours, abilities decline by about 30 per cent. This includes everything from mental problem solving to vigilance and communication tasks. A pilot whose duty day is extended to 17 hours will certainly have been awake for more than 18 hours.

    Particularly dangerous are microsleeps, which scientists define as three- to four-second breaks, where the brain shuts off even though the eyes may remain open.

    During a microsleep, people are unable to respond to external stimuli.

    While pilots are pushing Ottawa to put Canada's limits in line with the rest of the world, those who study fatigue say a limit on hours of service is only one part of the solution.

    Dr. Heselgrave said it is just as important that companies work with employees on measures to counter the effects of fatigue.

    One of the most controversial countermeasures would actually sanction pilots' napping in the cockpits. Since pilots are falling asleep anyway, airlines have a responsibility to ensure that it is done safely, Dr. Heselgrave said.

    Canadian regulations already allow pilots to take turns napping on duty, but only when an airline has drawn up detailed policies to govern the practice. No airlines have napping policies in place.

    The dangers of fatigue are even more severe in a small aircraft, where there are less sophisticated autopilot systems and only one pilot.

    For several years, Michael Murphy flew solo trips across Canada's Arctic. He said he often struggled to remain awake.

    "The airplane is capable of flying itself for a while, but that doesn't mean it will fly itself forever," he said.

    "You can hit something or you can slowly lose control."

    This is the first in a three-part series on how fatigue is affecting workers in Canada's transportation industries.

    On Monday, meet Peter Turner, a trucker who found that after 22 years, the hours on the road were making him grumpy and exhausted.

    And on Tuesday, Winnipeg engineer Dave Boyko talks about the struggle to stay awake on the rails.

    Wake-up calls

    Canada's transportation workers say they are falling asleep on the job despite regulations capping the number of hours they can work in a day. These are the present limits:

    Air: Commercial pilots can log up to 14 hours of flight duty time in a 24-hour period. A duty day can be extended to 17 hours for unforeseen operational circumstances, subject to certain conditions. A pilot's flight time can't exceed 40 hours a week or 300 hours over 90 consecutive days.

    Road: Truckers can work up to 15 hours a day, of which 13 hours can be behind the wheel. Proposed changes would allow truckers to be behind the wheel for 14 hours a day for as long as five consecutive days. In a typical week, they could drive as much as 84 hours.

    In extreme and unusual circumstances, drivers could log up to 106 hours a week.

    Rail: Railway engineers generally can't work shifts longer than 12 hours or 18 hours in any 24-hour period. Under rare exceptions, a shift can be up to 16 hours long. After working a shift of at least 10 hours, railway engineers cannot be called back for duty until they have had at least eight hours off.

     • Web Sites:
  • Transportation Safety Board of Canada 
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