Airline pilots say napping sometimes happens in the cockpit
White-knuckle airline passengers who are already shaken by news that two Northwest Airlines pilots are under investigation for overshooting a Minneapolis airport after possibly nodding off won’t want to hear this: Some pilots say cockpit catnaps happen.
“Pilots on occasion do take controlled naps,” said Barry Schiff, an aviation safety consultant and retired TWA pilot. “So this is not without precedent.”
Although the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits pilots from catching a few z’s in the cockpit, several airline pilots say they are surprised that napping mishaps haven’t happened more often, considering longer work schedules for pilots and advances in aviation that make planes easier to fly.
The issue of cockpit siestas came under scrutiny this week after the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board announced they were looking into why Northwest Flight 188, from San Diego to Minneapolis, overshot its airport by 150 miles before turning around.
According to the FAA, the crew of the Airbus A320, carrying 147 passengers, stopped responding to air traffic controllers and ignored airline dispatchers using a data link, similar to a text message. The FAA notified the military, which put Air National Guard fighter jets on alert at two locations, although none took to the air.
The pilots became aware of the situation after a flight attendant apparently alerted them through the intercom because the cockpit doors are locked during flight.
When the plane landed, the pilots told federal investigators that they lost track of their location because they were in a heated argument over airline policy. Delta Air Lines, which owns Northwest, declined to comment except to say the pilots had been suspended pending completion of the investigation.
Most of the passengers on board didn’t seem to realize anything was wrong until the plane landed nearly 75 minutes late.
Amy Kieffer, a passenger, told a television reporter that at one point the captain addressed the passengers on the public address system, saying, “After some back and forth and bickering, we should be landing in 15 or 20 minutes.”
Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA, said investigators didn’t know why the pilots were out of contact but they would look into the possibility that both were asleep.
“It’s certainly something we will look at,” he said.
If investigators conclude that the Northwest pilots were snoozing at 37,000 feet, several current and retired pilots say, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
“Fatigue is a real problem,” said Sam Mayer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Assn., the union that represents 11,500 American Airlines pilots. “I don’t know what happened [in Minneapolis] but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were asleep.”
And it wouldn’t be the first time.
A Go airline flight last February overshot Hilo International Airport in Hawaii by more than 20 miles. The pilots admitted to federal officials that they fell asleep in the cockpit while the plane was on autopilot. An NTSB report on the incident said there was an 18-minute interval during which no one could reach the flight by radio.
One of the pilots later told investigators that he regularly took planned naps in the cockpit but that this was the first time he had inadvertently fallen asleep. Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group Inc., which owns Go, fired both pilots.
In 2004, a pilot admitted to federal officials that he and the first officer on an Airbus A319 fell asleep on a “red eye” flight from Baltimore to Denver. They awoke to frantic radio calls from the air traffic control tower.
But perhaps the most eye-opening incident took place in 1998, when all three pilots on a Boeing 747 from Seoul to Anchorage nodded off in the cockpit. The plane landed safely but the captain admitted that he and his crew made several minor navigational errors because of fatigue.
“Each time when I awoke,” the captain told federal aviation officials in an anonymous report that didn’t name the airline, “the other two crew members were also asleep.”
Mayer and other pilots blame fatigue and increasing economic pressure on airlines to push pilots to work the maximum hours allowed under FAA rules.
“We have trips now that have five legs a day for several days in a row,” Mayer said. “After you work one of these shifts, you feel like you have been hit by a truck.”
Federal regulations on how many hours a pilot can work before taking a break are complicated. In simple terms, a pilot can be on duty for up to 16 hours but is not allowed to be in the air for more than eight hours straight in a 24-hour period, according to FAA officials.
Still, pilots complain that airlines often count the drive time to and from the airport as “rest time” between flights.
Another possible factor in such napping incidents is the level of automation in modern planes. Once a passenger plane reaches a cruising altitude, pilots do little more than monitor the gauges, keep an eye on the weather and communicate with ground control, according to pilots.
“When you reach cruising altitude, there is not much demand on one’s time and energy,” Schiff said. “There is not a lot going on.”
And pilots can’t rely on flight attendants to shake them awake. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, cockpit doors have been locked after takeoff. The attendants can communicate with the pilots via an intercom system.
The Air Transport Assn., the trade group that represents most major airlines, declined to comment on the Minneapolis incident, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Still, pilot fatigue is such a growing concern that FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in June appointed a 20-member committee of airline representatives, pilots and others to recommend rule changes.
The panel’s recommendations have not been released but a letter signed by several airline executives has leaked out. The letter, obtained by the pilots union, said the airlines would support “controlled cockpit napping” on long-haul flights, among other changes. “Controlled cockpit napping” involves short naps -- 15 to 20 minutes -- that pilots take in turn.
Such naps are allowed on long-haul international flights, where flight crews with three or more pilots can take turns sleeping in bunks behind the cockpit. The FAA has yet to signal a change on the policy that prohibits cockpit naps by domestic carriers.
Jason Goldberg, an American Airlines pilot for 12 years, said he had not seen a pilot snooze in the cockpit but was certain it happened. Although he believes that pilots are often overworked, he rejects the idea of “controlled cockpit naps.”
“It’s a bad practice,” he said. “You have one guy falling asleep and now you are relying on the other guy to stay awake. It’s a safety issue.”