Have you ever found yourself wondering -- perhaps during an unsatisfying nap in your 12th hour in a plane -- how pilots possibly stay awake during long-haul flights?
The answer is simple: They don't.
Thanks to federal regulations, pilots never fly more than nine hours at a time, always have backup "relief pilots" and designated beds on long flights, and have limits on the number of weekly hours they can work. This means pilots are among the best-rested people working in commercial transportation -- certainly more so than truck drivers, for instance -- and rarely deal with the issue of drowsy or sleep-deprived performance.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced a sweeping overhaul of pilot scheduling rules in 2011 in order to ensure that pilots have more time for rest before they enter the cockpit. Among other changes, the minimum mandatory downtime between flights was increased from eight hours to ten hours.
"We wanted to make sure 'eight hours to rest' really meant that pilots got eight hours," Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman, told the Huffington Post. "Before the 2011 rules, the clock started as soon as the plane landed, so eating dinner, working out, emails, and even getting to their bedroom would eat into a pilot's allotted rest time."
Although airlines flying out of U.S. airports had to reconfigure their schedules to accommodate the new standards, there was hardly any pushback, said Duquette: "There was a sense that this was long overdue."
The overhaul, which was the biggest change to flight rules in 50 years, was spurred by a Colgan Air crash near Buffalo in February 2009 that killed 50 people. Pilot fatigue was considered a factor in the disaster.
The FAA regulations are based on the sleep science of circadian rhythms -- the body's 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, or "body clock" -- and account for time zone differences. They mandate 30 consecutive off-duty hours each week, so a pilot will never work a seven-day week. The regulations also take sleep norms into account, Dennis Tajer, a spokesman of the Allied Pilots Association, told the Huffington Post, so pilots working the "back end of the clock," such as an all-night shift, will get even more rest time.
Before the FAA's 2011 rules, pilots already had some guidelines established to make sure they didn't get too tired in the air. All planes that fly internationally are required to have a bed or rest area for pilots, and any flight longer than eight hours requires the presence of a "relief pilot" to take over while the primary pilot rests. Flights over twelve hours require two relief pilots.
Relief pilots are "fully qualified and trained" junior members of the crew, said Tajer. When they're not taking the reigns, they either rest or assist the plane crew.
All this means commercial pilots rarely experience the 14-hour days typical of long-haul truck drivers. Truck driver guidelines by the Department of Transportation still allow for far more consecutive hours at the wheel -- up to 15, in some cases -- which creates more opportunities for drowsy driving.
Tajer calls the airline industry's mandatory fatigue management program "wonderful... It puts the complete onus on the airline and pilot to take safety seriously," he told the Huffington Post.
He said that pilots have to sign a document that they are "fit to fly" a certain leg before they step into a cockpit. That forces them to realistically assess their own fatigue and performance level. And if they don't feel up to it, said Tajer, they can "call in fatigued and step down, no questions asked." He himself has used this option once after a sleepless night, he said.
This web of rules conspiring to make sure pilots are well rested is one of the many reasons commercial aviation is perhaps the safest form of transport in the world: the odds of dying on a commercial flight is just 1 in 4.7 million. In contrast, in any given year your chance of dying in a traffic accident is 1 in 14,000.
So, the next time you find it trying to fall asleep in the middle seat of a long-haul flight, at least take some comfort in the fact that your pilot is probably sleeping a little more soundly than you are. It's a small tradeoff for safety.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story listed Dennis Tajer as the spokesperson for the American Pilots Association. He is a representative of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents the pilots of American Airlines.