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Scientific scrutiny needed in pilot scheduling regulations

As we recently reported, new regulations to standardize time limits for pilots flying across the European Union (EU) were proposed “in an attempt to reduce fatigue and enhance aviation safety”. Following the announcement, organizations like the British Airlines Pilots Association (BALPA), were quick to criticize the regulations, pointing out that pilots could end up landing planes after being awake for as long as 22 hours.

BBC news now reports that the proposed regulations were voted down by the Members of European Parliament (MEP) transport committee last week. The rejection may have been influenced by a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) incident report which indicated that both pilots of a recent UK-bound flight had fallen asleep at the same time. The report suggested that the incident was a result of longer shifts creating “an insufficient opportunity for pilots to rest” but regarded it as “isolated”.  BALPA, however, might suggest otherwise as a survey conducted on their behalf revealed that over 50% of commercial pilots admitted to “having fallen asleep on the flight deck” and almost 30% having woken up “to find the other pilot asleep”.

A BALPA spokesperson commented to BBC that “rejection of the new rules reflected “pilots’ concerns about the way the rules had been put together without proper scientific scrutiny and underpinning evidence”.  Pre-departure procedures for flights involve rigorous checks and balances to make sure flight equipment is in optimal form before take off, but what about a pilot check?In the case of this British airbus flight, it was revealed that one of the pilots had only slept a total of five hours over the previous two nights, and this occurred under the supposedly more stringent existing UK rules. Regulations are important, but they need to be built around meaningful data, starting with a real understanding of the current state of pilot fatigue and a validated analysis of schedule change benefits and implications.

Would you get in the plane with a pilot who has been awake for 22 hours?

A new BALPA poll, has revealed that nine out of 10 people are concerned about the proposed changes to flying rules that could lead to an aircraft being flown by a pilot who has been awake for 22 hours.

The changes to pilots’ rest requirements and duty times have been proposed by the EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and are aimed at regulating pilots hours across the EU.

But under these new rules, pilots could be landing passenger jets after 22 hours awake – including 11 hours flying, plus stand-by-time and travel to the airport.

The new rules could lead to pilots operating long haul flights with two (rather than three) crew members and working up to seven early starts in a row.

In the US, new regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulating pilots’ flight-time/duty-time will come into effect in 2014.

The new FAA rules set a 10 hour minimum rest period prior to the flight duty period – a two hour increase over the previous rules – and also mandates that a pilot must have an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep within the 10 hour rest period.

Is it really safety first?

With both EASA and FAA introducing new regulations in an attempt to reduce fatigue and enhance aviation safety, here at Fatigue Science we believe that until we start measuring pilots actual sleep, we will not see a reduction in fatigue related accidents.

Pat Byrne, our founder and VP says that “regulating hours will still mean that pilots can still get into the cockpit fatigued.  Ensuring that pilots have rest periods does not mean they will sleep – factors such as circadian rhythm and jet-lag all play a significant role in distributing sleep quality.”

Only by measuring pilots actual sleep with scientifically validated fatigue management technology such as our Readiband, will we be able to understand if pilots are turning up to work fatigued.

This is why fatigue is such an insidious hazard. Pilots can be mentally fatigued and be at a greatly increased accident risk, yet not even be aware that they are fatigued.

This why we believe that only until the EASA and FAA implement regulations requiring pilots sleep to be measured will we begin to see a reduction in the number of fatigue related air accidents.