The recent revelation that the cause behind the fatal Air India crash this May was pilot error due to sleep inertia has numerous agencies and the Indian government in a tizzy.
According to a report analyzing the plane's black box, the pilot, Zlatko Glusica, was asleep for most of the three hour flight from Dubai, UAE to Mangalore, India. In-flight recorders also picked up Mr. Glusica's snoring. Once he awoke, it was clear to his co-pilot that Capt. Glusica was disoriented and suffering from sleep inertia; the BBC reports that the co-pilot H.A. Ahluwalia tried to get him to abort the landing at Mangalore, to no avail.
Out of the 166 passengers and crew, only 8 survived the crash.
By far the most heartbreaking thing surrounding this event is that it's not unique. Last year's commuter crash in Buffalo, NY appears to have been the result of fatigue. In 1997, Korean Air Flight 801 slammed into the side of a mountain in Guam and killed 228 of its 254 passengers, partially due to pilot fatigue. In 2008, two Air India pilots completely overshot their destination (Mumbai) while asleep at the wheel; they were "woken up" two hours later by an anxious air traffic controller who thought the plane might have been hijacked.
Based upon this revelation, it would seem that the best thing to do would be to seriously adjust the rules under which pilots operate. They are, after all, responsible for the lives of millions of people every day. While pilots' unions and the FAA have been pushing scheduling reform for years, it seems that airline companies are still slow to respond to the serious risks associated with drowsy flying.
Recently, the Air Transport Association --of which 90% of US passenger and cargo airline companies belong to-- said that while they support the need to adjust pilot scheduling practices, they felt that new FAA regulation would:
create onerous and duplicative regulations, which in major respects do not mitigate fatigue or increase safety. These regulations would, however, add significant operational and scheduling complexity that will adversely affect our crews and customers.
For the record, some pilots are calling for even stricter rules regarding scheduling; instead of 9 hours rest (proposed), they'd like to see 10 hours in order to insure that at least 8 are spent sleeping.
Sort of makes the full-body scanner issue pale in comparison, don't you think?
The FAA and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood just announced a manditory rest period of 10 hours for all pilots, 8 hours of which must be spent sleeping. As FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta said, "This new rule gives pilots enough time to get the rest they really need to safely get passengers to their destinations."
In addition, the FAA put a cap of 14 hours on the allowable lenght of flight duty for single crews, which includes the time crew members are required to report for duty, the time before and between flights without rest periods, and ends when the final flight is parked at the gate.
They've also requred that a pilot have 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, an increase of 25% from the previous regulations.
Looks like the FAA has finally woken up to the seriousness of pilot sleep deprivation. Now it's time for the rest of us to get on board as well.