Friday, October 9, 2009

Wakey Wakey

Hey, wake up!

That's what travelers may want to say to airline pilots in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration studies a rule-change that would allow pilots to sleep during flights. The rationale is by cat-napping during the boring portions of flights, the pilots would be refreshed and better-able to handle take-offs and landings, for which they would presumably be awake.

In today's Wall Street Journal, reporter Andy Pasztor takes a sometimes-scarey look at this proposal, noting that pilots are already permitted to doze on board some international carriers during long-haul flights, so long as wakeful pilots provide back-up. Pasztor notes that "it isn't clear whether the FAA also might consider their use for certain short-haul schedules.''

Now, from the same story, here is the real eye-opener: "Pilots say naps not only make sense, but that they already take them.''

Moreover, the Journal notes, "A recent study reported that a majority of commuter pilots ... revealed that they had fallen asleep at least once behind the controls. It's not unusual for some commuter crews to work 14-hour days flying multiple short hops requiring as many as five or six landings.''

Here is a modest proposal: Reform airline work rules and change flight schedules so that sleep-deprived pilots can get their badly needed rest without putting lives in danger. Let them nap - and let them do it on the ground.

In the meantime, may I suggest this: Do as I do, not just as I say, and don't take commuter flights at all. Small regional carriers have the oldest planes, the most underpaid and undertrained pilots and the worst, fatigue-inducing flight schedules. Several times this year, I have traveled from New York City to my small hometown in Pennsylvania by Amtrak rather than subject myself to a cramped, overloaded, possibly rickety small commuter jet or propeller-driven regional flight.

I'll do anything I can to avoid such airplanes and the subcontractor regional airlines that now - according to a piece in the Journal by columnist Scott McCartney - account for nearly 40 percent of air travel in the U.S. Take the train, take the bus. Drive. Walk if you have to.

Just don't let a sleepy pilot on a dinky airline put your life at risk.

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