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Pilots have been falling asleep in the cockpit because of shift patterns which can see them at the controls of an aircraft 23 hours after waking up, a study has found.The findings of a study by Simon Bennett of Leicester University, has rekindled fears that passenger safety could be put at risk by pilot fatigue.
While the Federal Aviation Administration in the USA has tightened rules governing flying hours following a crash in Buffalo, New York in which 50 people died, the European Aviation Safety Agency is looking to relax British regulations to bring them into line with other parts of the EU.
Two pilots speaking to the Daily Telegraph on condition of anonymity, admitted they had nodded off in the cockpit.
“It is particularly bad on night flights when you have to be awake at a time when your body wants to be asleep,” he said.
“I have woken up from a rest period to find my colleague asleep when he was supposed to be flying the aircraft.”
Another pilot who has flown both intercontinental and short haul European flights, recalled falling into what he described as a “microsleep.”
He added: “Everything was closing in, then you would awake with a jolt. You try to keep awake by drinking stronger and stronger coffee.”
Their experience is commonplace according to Dr Bennett. “It is not unknown for pilots to unintentionally fall asleep while operating,” he said.
According to the British Airline Pilots Association, the European proposals would increase the number of hours flying crew could spend at work from 16 hours 15 minutes a day to 20 hours.
The pilots’ union says the changes would water down Britain’s safeguards, which are among the strictest in Europe.
At the heart of the debate is whether the time pilots spend getting to work should be taken into account.
Dr Bennett, who has been involved in aviation safety for more than a decade, believes it should.
He surveyed 433 pilots, with the help of the union, carrying out interviews and asking volunteers to compile sleep logs.
He asked pilots to include time they spent getting to the airport ahead of reporting for duty – something which is not taken into account in existing or the proposed flying hours regulations.
More than half the pilots travelled at least an hour to get to the airport before starting their shift.
These hours are not taken into account when drawing up safety rules, even though it can mean pilots are in control of an aircraft having had little sleep.
More than 50 per cent of pilots have been in control of an aircraft after being awake for 23 hours according to an academic study. A fifth said they were flying 28 hours after getting up.
Nearly eight per cent of the pilots who participated in the study admitted they had been involved in a road accident driving home at the end of their shift, Dr Bennett said.
On pilot who took part in the study said he had “nodded off” over the Isle of Wight on his approach to Gatwick.
“The reality is that pilots commute huge distances to get to work and the same to get home. But if I raise this in Westminster or in Europe, the response is that the airlines are abiding by the rules.”
Pilots reported feeling groggy, dizzy, light-headed and confused because of the long days they endured.
One described feeling “Punch-drunk. Utterly exhausted. Incapacitated.”
The pilot added: “I checked straight into a hotel and didn’t even drive home. The trouble with long-haul flying is you simply cannot predict how tired you will be at the end of a flight.”
Louise Ellman, the chairman of the all-party Transport Select Committee at Westminster, was alarmed by the findings.
“This increases concern that pilots are being asked to fly too long and gives added urgency for the need to review these proposals,” said
“The Government should be more active in arguing for a better deal.”
Simon Buck, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association, which represents the industry, declined to get involved in the debate.
“Flying time is a matter for the UK Authorities and it is up to them to specify the measures which are appropriate.”