Tired Pilots Are Falling Asleep At The Controls

02/23/2012 09:15 am ET | Updated Feb 23, 2012

British pilots warned members of Parliament Tuesday that if proposals to increase pilot flying time are approved, it will be a danger to public safety, report our colleagues at HuffPost UK.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) wants to standardize pilot workloads across its 27 member states.

The EU proposals would increase pilot work time from 16 hours 15 minutes a day to 20 hours, according to The Telegraph. When transportation time is factored in, that could result in a 22-hour work day. When we last addressed this story, the EU was debating only increasing pilot duty to 13 hours.

At that time, the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) claimed this would result in fatigue that's equatable to being four times over the legal alcohol limit -- an assertion it is still making. Dr Rob Hunter, Balpa’s head of safety, told MPs that "its own poll showed 43 percent of pilots had fallen asleep on the flight deck – but said this was ‘probably an underestimation,'" reports the Daily Mail.

"We need an appropriate reporting procedure," he told the BBC. "People fear that if they report fatigue they will be subject to a disciplinary process. Their concern is that they will be effectively writing the evidence for their own prosecution..."

These proposals would allow pilots to fly further, even as far as California, with no back-up crew. Pilots would also be allowed to do seven early starts in a row.

A Unite union leader told the Daily Mail that the proposals could result in a 17 percent increase in pilots’ workloads. And, "there is a five-and-a-half times higher chance of an accident when duty periods exceed 13 hours," another expert told the paper.

On the other hand, proponents like Transport Minister Theresa Villiers believe overall safety will improve with the changes, as "moving to a Europe-wide system of safety regulation 'would undoubtedly bring up the standards to a broadly equivalent level to that in the UK,'" she told the BBC.

Do sleepy pilots threaten air safety? The question is not a new one. But, after the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air plane near Buffalo, N.Y., it was considered enough for the FAA to propose a rule change allowing pilots more sleep. The new pilot work rules, which limit the maximum time a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty to between nine and 14 hours, were adopted in late 2011.

Even Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, famous for landing his U.S. Airways plane safely in the Hudson River, admitted to ABC that he probably could not have made the miraculous landing had he not had slept enough.

"Had we been tired, had we not gotten sufficient rest the night before," Sullenberger told ABC, "we could not have performed at the same level."

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