Regardless of whether two Northwest Airlines pilots fell asleep during a domestic flight this week, a Spokane sleep researcher said the incident confirms what aviation experts know. Airline pilots, like train engineers and truck drivers, need to be monitored better for fatigue and affected performance, said Gregory Belenky, director of WSU Spokane’s Sleep and Performance Research Center.
The pilot and co-pilot of the four-hour flight from San Diego to Minneapolis told officials they “lost situational awareness” during the last leg of the flight, causing a 78-minute period of no radio contact.
Carrying 144 passengers, the airplane flew 150 miles past Minneapolis, then circled back and landed safely after the pilots resumed contact with air traffic controllers.
The Northwest pilots told Federal Aviation Administration investigators that they were distracted by their heated discussion about airline policies. Some pilots and others have raised doubts, saying it’s unlikely experienced pilots could lose contact with air traffic control even while arguing in the cockpit.
Even if napping was involved, Belenky said he cannot tell if the Northwest pilots shared any of the common factors most associated with crew fatigue. Those are disrupted work-sleep schedules – working day shifts followed right after by night shifts; long work shifts without rest breaks; and chronic sleep debt.
Last year Belenky went to Washington, D.C., to attend an FAA symposium on pilot training and fatigue monitoring. He and other sleep scientists briefed airlines officials, pilots and regulators on the effects of sleep deprivation on performance.
“The people there, the pilots, their unions and everyone else are very much aware of these issues and are looking for ways to address them,” Belenky said.
The FAA has produced modified pilot-training rules and operations guidelines. But those will not be released until later this year.
Safety experts have said overworked or sleep-deprived pilots have been involved in dozens of fatal crashes and hundreds of close calls.