It sounds like a nightmare: A pilot falling asleep at the controls during a commercial flight.
The reality? It's common. Very common. As in ...
“I've never fallen asleep on the flight deck, but I've twice looked over and saw the other pilot sleeping,” a commercial airline pilot told me the other day.
“So what did you do?” I asked
“I said, 'Hey dude,'” the pilot told me. “And then they woke up, said they were sorry.”
Feel free to let your jaw hit the floor here. And it gets worse: According to a poll taken by The British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA), half of pilots surveyed admitted to falling asleep on the flight deck, and nearly 30 percent of them woke up to find the OTHER PILOT SLEEPING.
Sorry about the screaming there. I panicked. But yes. Both pilots. Asleep.
“The study sounds about right,” the pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, told me.
Now, you may ask yourself: Why would a pilots' union release findings like these? Reason was simple: New rules are being proposed in the European Union that would cut recovery time for pilots after a flight.
Here in America, the tide is going in the other direction. Pilots will get more time than they have.
As of now, pilots get a minimum of nine hours between flights. That's nine hours from landing to takeoff, and it's been this way since the start of the jet age, the pilot said. Starting next year, pilots will get 10 hours from when they get to the hotel. Big difference. Still, though ... not a lot of time. To ridiculously compare, I teach classes at Rider University in Lawrence, New Jersey. Per union rules, we get 12 hours between classes if we teach at night. So yes. College professors are granted more recovery time than cross-country airline pilots.
In the meantime – and for the last 50 years or so – fatigued pilots have been routinely falling asleep in the cockpit.
“Airlines do have fatigue risk policies, but it's a Catch-22,” the pilot told me. “If you feel like you're too tired to fly, you can call in fatigued, and they'll remove you from the flight. But the 'gotcha' is – and this depends on which airline you fly for – you might not get paid.”
And considering many junior pilots – known as “first officers” – make about $25,000 a year, especially on the smaller, regional airlines, calling out fatigued is not something pilots want to do.
Now to be clear, a pilot – or even both pilots – falling asleep at the controls is not as completely terrible as it sounds. Planes fly on autopilot. But ...
“Every flight has inherent danger,” the pilot told me. “Engine problems can crop up at any time. And if there's rapid decompression, and you don't get oxygen mask on in time ... listen, one person is totally capable of flying the plane, but during an emergency? Two people need to be at the controls when anything weird happens.”
Is anyone else's heart beating a little faster right now? I don't know about you, but next time I fly, I'm coming on board and handing over two venti black coffees from Starbucks.
The pilot I spoke with said he wanted to be a pilot his whole life, and had no idea pilots would conk out in the cockpit with alarming regularity until he became a pilot himself.
“There's a joke,” he said. “The captain tells the first officer, 'Don't let me catch you sleeping when I wake up.'”
Anyway, the issue here doesn't lie with the pilots; when you're tired, you fall asleep. We're lousy at staying awake, in general. Over 37 percent of American drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel, according to a study done by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
The problem lies with the rules. Lousy hotels, quick turnarounds, horrible pay. Apparently, the rules are changing for the better, but know this: Every time you've been on a plane, there's a decent chance the pilot was in sleepy dreamland.
Cocktail, please, steward.
Jeff Edelstein can be reached at facebook.com/jeffreyedelstein and @jeffedelstein on Twitter.