sleeping-pilotFrequent airline passengers taking comfort from preliminary findings of an investigation into whether two Northwest Airlines pilots were dozing when they overshot a Minneapolis airport (it appears they were most likely awake but inattentive to air traffic control messages) should hold off on sighs of relief. It turns out catnaps are a common occurrence in the cockpit. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits pilots from sawing logs during flights, airline experts say it’s a wonder that dozing mishaps don’t occur more regularly. Cockpit snoozes became national water cooler chat in October after the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said they were investigating Northwest Flight 188, which was flying from San Diego to Minneapolis on October 21st when it overshot the airport by 150 miles. Investigators say that the crew of the plane, an Airbus A320 which was carrying 147 passengers, ceased to respond to messages and calls from air traffic controllers. Air National Guard fighter jets from two bases were placed on alert. The pilots only became aware of what was happening after a flight attendant contacted them on an intercom. Most passengers didn’t realize anything was wrong until after the plane had landed nearly 75 minutes late. Upon landing, the pilots told investigators they had lost track of their location because of a heated discussion concerning airline policies. Northwest’s parent, Delta Air Lines, suspended the pilots pending an outcome to the investigation, and their licenses were revoked by the FAA. There remains conflict between accounts of the pilots and what investigators suspect was going on inside the cockpit. Veteran pilots and experts say that if it’s determined that the Northwest pilots were dozing in-flight, it wouldn’t be the first time. Last February, a Go airline flight shot past Hawaii’s Hilo International Airport by over 20 miles. The pilots admitted they had fallen asleep while the plane was on autopilot. An official report said there was an 18-minute period in which no one could reach the crew by radio. One pilot admitted that he took regular naps in the cockpit. Both pilots were fired by Go’s parent company. Five years ago, a pilot admitted that he and the first officer on a “red eye” flight from Baltimore to Denver had fallen asleep in the cockpit of an Airbus A319; they had been awakened by the frantic radio calls of an air traffic controller. And possibly the most fright-inducing for passengers happened in 1998, when all three pilots on a flight from Seoul, South Korea to Anchorage, Alaska nodded off in the cockpit of their Boeing 747. Although the plane landed safely, the captain told federal officials in an anonymous report that didn’t name the airline, “Each time when I awoke, the other two crew members were also asleep.” Federal rules governing the number of hours a pilot can work before requiring a break are complex. The FAA says that pilots can be on duty for up to 16 hours, but aren’t allowed to be in the air for more than eight hours straight over a 24-hour period. Pilots say that airlines often count driving time to and from an airport between flights as “rest time.” Another contributing factor in napping incidents might be the technology in modern planes. Many pilots say that once a plane reaches cruising altitude, pilots have little more to do than monitor gauges, check the weather, and maintain communications with air traffic control. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the doors to cockpits are locked following takeoff, so pilots can’t rely on flight attendants to shake them awake. Pilot fatigue is such a concern that the FAA appointed a 20-member committee of pilots, airline representatives, and others to review regulations and recommend changes. The airlines say they would support, among other changes, “controlled cockpit napping” on long-haul domestic flights. “Controlled cockpit napping” is short, 15-to-20-minute naps, that pilots take in rotation. They are currently permitted on long-haul international flights, where crews with three or more pilots take turns sleeping behind the cockpit. The FAA hasn’t signaled yet whether it will change its policy prohibiting cockpit naps on domestic flights. – Boomer