THE BLOG

Not Fit to Fly

06/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

It's hard to legislate sleep. As an employer you can certainly set rules and guidelines, hoping your employees show up refreshed and ready to perform, but you can't really enforce or police it -- even when lives depend on it.

Hearing about the fatigue factor involved in Continental's February plane crash on a cold, icy night near Buffalo, New York has been horrifying. According to the latest reports from the NTSB, the main cause of the crash is being blamed on the crew's lack of experience and lack of sleep (lack of proper conduct in the cockpit, too, which certainly stems from a lack of experience and sleep).

Have you ever wondered:

  • When you step on to a plane, how alert are your pilots?
  • Have they just gotten off a transcontinental flight and haven't slept in a day -- or two?
  • Have they been working the graveyard shift and catching some Zs on a couch in the terminal before taking control of your plane?
  • Are they feeling fuzzy and spacey as they continue to fight a nagging cold bug (which really prefers them to be sleeping more)?
  • How much does sleep factor into performance...even when an emergency happens suddenly?

To quickly answer that last question, sleep plays a huge role in the ability to perform, even when it comes to basic skills we've done over and over again. And thinking about our pilots' alertness is probably not something that enters our minds as we're boarding planes and getting organized in our seats, but the thoughts are crossing millions of grounded minds this week as more news emerges about the fate of that February ride.


The history books are loaded with similar stories: The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident have all been attributed to human errors in which sleep-deprivation played a role.

The NRMA (National Roads and Motorists Association) estimates fatigue is involved in one in 6 fatal road accidents. In fact, 17 hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood alcohol-level of 0.05%. Too bad "sleepy driving" doesn't have the same buzz to it as "drunk driving."

Sorry, but sleep deprivation -- regardless of your job -- is not a badge of honor. Pilots aside, think of all the jobs that rely on alertness in critical, potentially life-threatening scenarios: ER doctors, surgeons, ground transportation drivers, air-traffic controllers, freight train engineers, etc. The sad part is the challenge of ensuring our pilots, drivers, controllers, and so forth are indeed fit to be at the helm. What can we do?

  • Have them keep journals of their sleep/wake cycles?
  • Invent a test they can take to measure their alertness prior to clocking in?
  • Enforce stricter guidelines for when, say, a pilot, can be in the cockpit after a certain stretch of wakefulness?  

It's all a hotly contested debate. No one is perfect. But we demand perfection in certain situations when the lives of people are at stake. May this recent incident and ongoing investigation shed a brighter light on the importance of sleep hygiene and the value of ensuring our public servants get all the sleep they need.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

This article on sleep is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.