03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Pilot Fatigue to Blame?

If you learned upon landing that your plane's pilots had overshot the airport by 150 miles because they fell asleep at the controls, what would you feel?




I'd feel a mix of the above. In this week's latest hit to the airline industry, a Northwest flight to Minneapolis overshot its destination and pilot fatigue could be to blame. Of course, the pilots are saying they were in an argument at the time and that's the reason for the blunder (not that I'd like to see my pilots so distracted over a "debate" that they still overshoot the runway!).

Fatigue among pilots has been a recurring theme this year, punctuated earlier this year by the deadly crash near Buffalo that was partly blamed on fatigue (that crash was blamed on pilot error).

The Federal Aviation Administration is rewriting its rules that govern flight time for pilots and their required rest periods in order to reduce the chances of fatigue. It will be the first update to the rules in decades and will utilize research that wasn't available before.

Does that make me feel better the next time I fly?

A little, maybe. Trouble is, it can be hard to legislate such rules. And sometimes fatigue over a series of poorly slept nights can catch up to you days later. In other words, you could have a sleep-deprived weekend, feel okay on Monday but be a zombie on Tuesday when you're expected to perform -- and the lives of countless others are in your hands.

I've written about shift workers a lot in the past. But those who have jobs that put the lives of many others at stake should be scrutinized to a much higher degree. If it's that easy to fall asleep at the controls of an airplane -- without the airplane knowing (or its numerous flight attendants!), then I say, let's invent something that can keep check on that. With all the gadgets we have at our disposal today, can't we find one that can alert the crew on a flight when its captain has nodded off?

Just a thought. Now that would make me feel safer in the skies.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

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