W5 investigation: Startling number of pilots report routinely falling asleep in the skies
Published Tuesday, September 26, 2017 11:57AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, September 26, 2017 1:31PM EDT
Anyone who has worked overnight shifts in their lives knows the feeling. The disorientation that hits without warning, the nausea, and the battle to stay awake when your body rhythm is telling you to sleep.
Now imagine flying a passenger jet feeling that way.
It’s a part of every pilot’s life, but Canadian regulations haven’t caught up with how much science is learning about the impact of sleep deprivation on performance.
The rules on how long pilots can work in a day, and how many days in a row across time zones, were last overhauled in the 1970s when studying sleep was in its infancy.
There were tweaks in the 1990s, and collective bargaining agreements have set limits at the larger airlines, but the current industry regulations make little mention of fatigue.
Transport Canada has proposed overhauling flight time rules several times in the past couple of years, but they have triggered intense lobbying by the pilots’ unions and industry and had trouble making it into law. The current proposals are open for commentary until September 30th, and then the Treasury Board will decide whether to make changes, or proceed at all.
Pilots’ unions say the new rules are an improvement because they provide structure to their work for the first time. They also, however, say they don’t reach the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Authority or even the United States.
- TSB findings on the Air Canada Zurich flight incident
- The FAA advisory to pilots following an Air Canada near-miss at San Francisco airport
- Proposed new Canadian fatigue regulations
For example, a flight departing Toronto for Rome requires two pilots under the new and existing regulations. Under American regulations, a third would need to be on board from New York to Rome in case the captain or co-pilot suffers from fatigue and needs to nap.
What many passengers may not realize is that Canadian pilots are permitted to sleep on the job under a system called "controlled rest." It’s up to the pilot to self-assess whether they need to nap, and they’re permitted up to 40 minutes on a flight.
A survey of 1,900 Canadian pilots was obtained by W5, and it provides data showing a startling number of pilots are napping in the skies. The controlled rest rules were implemented as a safety measure for occasional use. The survey suggests sleeping in the pilot’s seat has now become a routine part of the job, with one in five pilots reporting falling asleep involuntarily.
It’s difficult to know how big a danger this is to the travelling public. Because Transport Canada regulations haven’t focused on fatigue, crash investigators typically look for it as a contributing factor – not the main one.
The cargo industry in Canada believes the concern is exaggerated, and is arguing it should be exempt from the proposed new fatigue regulations. The CEO of Cargojet tells W5 the new rules could put his company out of business because it would require them to hire many more pilots. Ajay Virmani says 80 per cent of Cargojet flights are at night, so his pilots aren’t shifting around as often as passenger jet pilots do and the regulations will be too restrictive.
As you’ll see in our W5 investigation, there has been one confirmed incident involving an Air Canada jet over the Atlantic where a pilot’s controlled rest almost led to a midair collision. And we also learn the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S. has reminded airlines to pay close attention to pilot fatigue among other issues in relation to its investigation of how an Air Canada jet narrowly missed four jets on the taxiway at San Francisco’s airport this past summer.
It’s timely to be asking whether more attention needs to be paid to how alert Canadian pilots are when their airliner is in the sky.