One Reason Airplanes Are Far Safer Than Buses and Trucks

Have you ever found yourself wondering — perhaps during an unsatisfying nap in your 12th hour in a plane — how pilots possibly stay awake during long-haul flights?

The answer is simple: They don’t.

Thanks to federal regulations, pilots never fly more than nine hours at a time, always have backup “relief pilots” and designated beds on long flights, and have limits on the number of weekly hours they can work. This means pilots are among the best-rested people working in commercial transportation — certainly more so than truck drivers, for instance — and rarely deal with the issue of drowsy or sleep-deprived performance.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced a sweeping overhaul of pilot scheduling rules in 2011 in order to ensure that pilots have more time for rest before they enter the cockpit. Among other changes, the minimum mandatory downtime between flights was increased from eight hours to ten hours.

“We wanted to make sure ‘eight hours to rest’ really meant that pilots got eight hours,” Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman, told the Huffington Post. “Before the 2011 rules, the clock started as soon as the plane landed, so eating dinner, working out, emails, and even getting to their bedroom would eat into a pilot’s allotted rest time.”

Although airlines flying out of U.S. airports had to reconfigure their schedules to accommodate the new standards, there was hardly any pushback, said Duquette: “There was a sense that this was long overdue.”

The overhaul, which was the biggest change to flight rules in 50 years, was spurred by a Colgan Air crash near Buffalo in February 2009 that killed 50 people. Pilot fatigue was considered a factor in the disaster.

The FAA regulations are based on the sleep science of circadian rhythms — the body’s 24-hour sleep-wake —> Read More