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Fall 2011 Vol. 11 Number 2

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©Photodisc/ThinkstockPilot Fatigue

Do Commutes Pose A Flight Risk?

Although many airline pilots have work commutes no longer than the rest of us do, some live hundreds or even thousands of miles from the airports where they are based. This fact has prompted fear that fatigue from their commutes may cause pilots to arrive at work too tired to operate a plane safely. Following a fatal Colgan Airlines crash that raised concerns about pilot commuting practices, Congress asked the National Research Council to examine the issue.

Commuting has the potential to cause fatigue — for pilots as for everyone — but the extent to which it has been a safety risk is not known, the study committee concluded. Currently, there is not enough data to determine the degree to which commuting may be a risk or whether it should be regulated. The report recommends that FAA fund a study to determine the relationships between commuting distance and risk factors for fatigue. It should include a large random sample of pilots from many airlines representing major parts of the industry. In addition, FAA, pilots, and airlines should take steps now to lower the likelihood that commuting practices will pose a risk to safety, the report says.

Research shows that fatigue can lower performance if a person is awake continuously for more than about 16 hours or sleeps less than six hours on the day prior to work. In light of these findings, pilots should plan their commutes and other pre-duty activities so that they will not have been awake more than about 16 hours by the time their duty is completed. They should also try to sleep at least six hours before reporting for duty, and they should consider the amount of time they’ve spent asleep and awake when deciding whether they should inform their supervisors whether they are too tired to fly, the report says. For their part, airlines should consider policies to help pilots plan nonfatiguing commutes and to minimize the negative consequences for pilots if disrupted commutes leave them too weary for duty.

The report also recommends that FAA fund an independent organization, such as the Flight Safety Foundation, to convene a joint working group made up of labor organizations, airlines, and government to assess industry policies on pilot commuting, sick leave, attendance, and fatigue, and to develop best practices.
 -- Sara Frueh

The Effects of Commuting on Pilot Fatigue. Committee on the Effects of Commuting on Pilot Fatigue; Board on Human-Systems Integration, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, and the Transportation Research Board (2011, 220 pp.; ISBN 0-309-21696-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $48.25 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Clinton V. Oster Jr., professor, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington. The study was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences