Pilot Fatigue Rules May Change – Do Sleepy Pilots Worry You?

UPDATE: The FAA has officially announced its “sweeping new rule” change proposal on pilot fatigue and complete details are now available on the Federal Aviation Administration website.


Is a sleepy pilot a dangerous pilot? The FAA is concerned enough that it is expected to propose new rules to combat “pilot fatigue”.

What Would Change

According to Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s blog, these rules would include the following:

  • 9 hour minimum rest period prior to flying (one hour increase over current rules)
  • 30 consecutive hours “off” each week (25% increase over current rules)

The Plane Crash that Sparked the Proposed Changes

There will be a 60-day comment period on this proposed rule, which comes in the wake of last year’s commuter plane crash in Upstate New York that killed 50 people – but while pilot fatigue was widely suspected as a contributing factor, the NTSB ultimately blamed the accident on pilot error and poor training.

But yes, pilots can and do get very tired, because they can work very long hours – up to 16 hours a day of continuous duty including flight time. Last year, a pilot told FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney about two long back-to-back flying and prep days, adding “I was so physically exhausted I could barely lift my water bottle.” Luckily for the passengers, at least this pilot was still able to operate an airplane.

Yes, Sometimes Pilots DO Fall Asleep

Some cannot operate an airplane. Or at least, they can’t operate it properly. Remember those two pilots for Hawaii’s discount Go Airlines, who overshot Hilo, their destination? Turned out both pilots had fallen asleep at the controls (though one of the men was later diagnosed with sleep apnea, not that that makes me feel any better).

I doubt the airlines are going to like these proposed new rules because it will add to their overhead. Don’t misunderstand me – I do believe the airlines when they say safety is paramount for them, but – they can’t fly safely if they’re out of business, and carriers are coming off a few very lean years. However, if the rules go into effect, the airlines will follow them.

Final note: Last year, the FAA was considering allowing pilots to nap in the cockpit (one at the controls, while the other one snoozed) but nothing came of it.



Updated: November 16, 2015