I was tired and needed a nap when I started writing this column Friday night. I worked hard last week, and I didn't sleep as much, or as well, as I should have. It's hard to write while you're tired, but no one's life depends on it.
The troubling news about the Northwest Airlines flight that was out of touch with air traffic controllers for almost 80 minutes and bypassed its Minneapolis destination by about 150 miles, while fighter planes stood ready to take off, is raising new concerns about pilot fatigue and the safety risk it poses for airline passengers.
The pilots involved say they got into such a heated discussion about company policy that they forgot to land, forgot to communicate with air traffic control, didn't respond to messages from their own airline, and scared the living daylights out of the people on the ground. No matter what happened, their careers are likely to be over.
It's hard to see why a heated discussion would be a better excuse than falling asleep. But because the black box voice recorder on the plane was as outmoded as the work rules, retaining only the last 30 minutes of conversation (by which time they were turning around and landing), no one may ever be able to prove whether they were arguing or snoring.
But it's perfectly clear that many pilots are expected to fly when they must be even wearier than I was Friday night. The rules require them to have only eight hours off in a 24-hour period, which includes the time it takes to get to and from home or hotel, as well as the time it takes to fall asleep. Eight hours easily can mean five hours of sleep before another 16 hours of flying. Those same rules apply to pilots who take off and land once an hour on commuter routes, the hardest, most intense, and most dangerous part of flying, and to those who do so once a day.
After the tragic and unnecessary death of his daughter, New York journalist Sidney Zion led a successful crusade to regulate the hours that medical interns and residents work so as to prevent similar mistakes. Even so, many experts, including those involved in a 2008 study by the Institute of Medicine, say residents' hours still need to be cut to reduce medical mistakes. And residents are almost all in their 20s and 30s, not their 40s and 50s.
I always smile when I see a gray-haired pilot, figuring that — like the famous Sully Sullenberger, who landed his plane on the Hudson — experience is a good thing. From now on, I'm looking for bags under the eyes.
Going without enough sleep is not something that improves with age; just the opposite. As I've gotten older, getting to sleep and sleeping enough have become harder, not easier.
The Federal Aviation Administration has opened discussions about allowing "controlled napping" on flights. Although the rules now prohibit any pilot from sleeping, industry experts say it happens all the time, but no one admits to it.
I know what happens to me on five hours of sleep, and I'd hate to think of it happening to someone making life-and-death decisions, much less someone who has hundreds of lives in his or her hands. Getting enough sleep is a necessity, not a luxury.
The passengers on the Northwest flight never knew anything was wrong. A flight attendant reportedly noticed the time flying and got in touch with the cockpit by intercom, either stopping the fight or waking the pilots, who proceeded to turn the plane around and land safely. Thank God.
Only when the marshals boarded the plane upon landing did the people on board began to understand how much danger they'd been in.
One disaster was averted. It is time to change the rules before the next one.