Saturday, October 24, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

What can happen next in U.S. domestic air travel?

Afer a year in which travelers in the United States have seen fatal crashes, dramatic flight delays for planes parked on the tarmac, and a commuter airline (Go, in Hawaii) whose pilots both fell asleep on an inter-island flight, we now have the curiously strange case of Northwest flight 188, which overflew its Minneapolis destination when both pilots on board were out of radio contact with controlers on the ground for more than an hour.

The pilots, who have been suspended, have given conflicting accounts of the flight after they finally landed safely in Minnespolis and one of them weirdly flashed a two-thumbs up signal. First, they said they had been having a heated discussion on airline policy in the cockpit and "lost situational awareness." Then, the first officer told reporters there had been no argument. Many aviation experts believe the two men fell asleep in the cockpit, though they deny it.

Parent company Delta Air Lines and federal authorities are investigating, trying to get to the bottom of what really happened. The pilots deny that they or the three flight attendants or the 144 passengers on board were ever in any danger, but travelers could be forgiven for not having total confidence in this claim.

Some pilots and their union, the Air Line Pilots Association, want controlled napping - when one pilot at a time takes a short in-flight nap, to refresh himself - to be made legal. On long-haul international flights, which can run upwards of 15 hours nonstop, the practice is already fairly common, but these flights carry larger flight crews and thus have wakeful pilots on hand.. How can pilots on short-haul routes need sleep, unless they are overworked and sleep-deprived because of it? No domestic U.S. flights last longer than 6 hours and most are far shorter. Even so, some pilots, unions and airlines are asking the Federal Aviation Administration to revise rules to make in-flight napping legal. (Pilots still wouldn't be cleared to sleep during take-offs or landings.)

Here is a modest counter-proposal: How about revising work rules to give pilots on short-haul routes more rest before and after piloting a flight, not during that flight? Whether or not this latest curious aviation incident was caused by sleeping pilots or weary pilots missing their cues, it presents an opportunity to address a serious issue in a serious way. Lives are at stake.

Bottom line: Air travelers will sleep better when we know the pilots of our airplanes are wide awake.

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