To nap or not to nap?
Crew fatigue management is just as important to safe operations as other work disciplines.
Let's start with the things we can do ourselves. While it has long been accepted as a part of a pilot's lifestyle that some have a long commute before reporting for duty, a transcontinental trip in a jumpseat, even if all works well, certainly takes its toll on alertness. Pilots who live far from home base should commute with plenty of time to spare, and make sure they get a good rest in a hotel room or their own apartment at home base. No operator will understand a pilot's tiredness if they added a long commute to the first duty day.
Citation X crew lands at VNY (Van Nuys CA) in the evening. The added workload of approach and landing often coincides with significant fatigue after a long crew duty period.
A healthy diet and regular exercise not only help pilots to maintain their medical certificate-they also raise tolerance for stress and fatigue. Doctors recommend endurance exercises such as running, biking and swimming for 30-45 minutes 3 or 4 times a week.
Employers can help in the fight against crew fatigue in 3 areas-scheduling, hotel selection and onboard crew rest facilities for augmented crews engaged in longhaul operations.
While it's easy for a crew scheduler to move crews around on a screen with the click of a mouse, crews have to be able to adapt to the new schedule. Policies and software tools are needed to adjust the theoretical possibilities of crew scheduling to the human needs of crews. Circadian rhythms and transmeridian time zone changes need to be considered.
Looking for intelligent rules
Government rules increase the required crew rest periods for international flights if several time zones are crossed, but they do not factor in the body clocks of crewmembers. At least 2 local nights are needed to make up the sleep debt and desynchronization of circadian rhythm that result from a longhaul flight.
Some companies have tried to find better crew scheduling algorithms. My company requires at least 144 hours (!) between a westbound and an eastbound longhaul flight. But it is not hard to imagine that the increased scheduling complexity-and thus cost-that accompany rules such as this also expose improved fatigue management rules to constant attack by financial departments.
But some rules even make financial sense-for example, enlarged crews. Government and contract rules require augmented crews on very long flights, and the money saved in technical stops and aircraft utilization easily pays for the extra pilots. However, the extra crew has to be able to sleep onboard. A separate room with a bed and bedsheets is the best. On many aircraft, this is obviously not possible due to size constraints, but I do wish to mention the crew rest accommodation on the Boeing 747-400 freighter-in my opinion the best around. Behind a soundproof door in the upper deck there are 2 single rooms with beds (not bunks!), a small closet and even a window to gaze at the stars. Some airlines even provide linens and bedsheets.
After landing, a decent hotel is required, enlarged crew or not. It always amazes me how many crews actually try to rest in hotels right at the airport. These are neither cheap nor quiet, and they definitely do not provide a quiet refuge from work pressures where a crewmember can actually recuperate. An 8 to 10-hour crew rest in a noisy airport hotel might satisfy the legal requirements for crew rest period, but it definitely does not allow for a rested crew. Invest in the search for optimum crew hotels, and create a checklist of criteria for acceptable crew accommodation.
Anyone who has a hard time falling asleep "on command" should not waste time with TV shows or the Internet. Instead, they should learn some relaxation techniques, and perhaps invest in some comfortable earplugs and a sleeping mask to keep everything dark.
Healthy restful sleep
This MD11F longhaul crew prepares for the approach to NBO at sunrise. Since the rest period will be during daylight hours, dark and quiet hotel rooms are essential.
Sleep actually consists of different phases, starting with the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, in which the mind is dreaming, and including phases where mind and body slow down. Any interruption of a sleep cycle places a severe limit on its effectiveness. Cell phones need to be off (or silent), and it's important to make sure the housemaid or operations doesn't disturb your sleep. In my company we have a policy that operations does not call during crew rest but sends a fax to be slipped under the door. Crewmembers call back once they have completed their rest.
Sleep is a vital function of the body. Most people need about 8 hours of sleep a night-some more, some less. I have tried keeping a "sleep log" on international trips, in which I wrote down the sleep I should have gotten and the sleep I was actually able to get. The results were astonishing. We usually acquire a tremendous sleep debt when we are out on trips.
Fatigue can become chronic fatigue if there is no chance of adequate rest over long periods of time. Due to today's tighter airline work patterns, many longhaul pilots set themselves up for chronic fatigue. Only a complete withdrawal from flight duty for several weeks can help them recover.
Recently I had the opportunity to join a 3-week rehabilitation program targeted specifically at longhaul pilots. While this is a luxury not many operators can afford, it was amazing how much good 3 weeks of regular sleep, healthy meals and exercise can do for your body and spirits. It helps you regain a long-forgotten feel for your body's needs, and improves measurable health parameters significantly. The difficulty, of course, is to keep up the healthy lifestyle after you return to flying around the globe.
Peter Berendsen is a Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) MD11 captain for an international cargo airline. He writes regularly on aviation-related subjects.
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