Around the Pattern

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Tag: fatigue

Pilot Crash Pads – Nothing New

There has been quite a discussioncat nap going on over at AvWeb concerning the current series of reports being aired by ABC.  The FAA Administrator has even weighed in on the subject.

The Crash-Pad Experience

It has been a bit over 20 years since I started working for Northwest Airlines, but I can still remember those first few years. The pay during the initial training phase was abysmal even for a major airline – even below the first year pay rate. An ex-flight attendant was arranging lodging for trainees by contracting with apartment complexes to rent unfurnished 2-bedroom units and then renting furniture to put in the units. It was a pretty good deal and splitting the rent 4 ways made the costs bearable. After finishing training I moved into a large house owned by the same individual. There had to be 25 beds located throughout the place. There were almost a dozen people continually in residence since most of us were just out of training and sitting reserve (on call). I moved out of there after about 3 months – just after the police came around looking for the owner. Something about not paying a few bills.

My next ‘pad’ was in another apartment complex. It was a 2-bedroom unit shared with 4 other pilots. I bounced around several of these places for the first 2-3 years with the airline. I finally made it into a commuter pad in a complex across the street from the Mall of America. This place had been in operation since the complex had been built in the 1960s.  I stayed there as a member until the complex was torn down – a result of the north-south runway being built at KMSP.

We had four to six pilots in that unit – two bedrooms with two beds in each. It was rare that we had more pilots than beds for a night since all but one of us were holding a set schedule by then, but it did happen. The last guy to arrive got the living room sofa. I stayed  at this crash pad for about 15 years, even when I was senior enough to hold an international schedule with one trip a month. It was just more comfortable having a familiar place to go. When the light rail system went into operation with it’s terminals at the airport and the Mall you could ride it rather than getting a cab or incurring the costs with keeping a commuter car parked at the airport.

When the complex was torn down I started using a hotel room. I always commuted to my assigned base the day before a trip was to leave. I just didn’t want the added stress of trying to commute the same day as a trip started – especially when that first leg was 10-12 hours long.  Living on the west coast and flying out of the central time zone usually made that same-day commute impossible anyway.

The Situation Now

The first-year pay rate for a First Officer at one major airline is a bit over $56/hr no matter what airplane is being flown. The second year rate for a  mainline jet (DC-9/MD-88) raises that rate to about $76/hr. If the pilot is on reserve the guarantee is 70 hours of flight pay per month. (If you fly more hours you will get higher pay.)  Subtract from that amount all of our usual taxes and you get about 35-45,000 a year. Then subtract union dues, insurance premiums, education loans, flight school loans, car payments, etc., etc. The exposé that was run referred to regional airline pilots – who are paid a fraction of the pay rate of the major airlines. Do you still wonder why entry-level pilots are using crash pads and lounges to get some sleep?

Yes, there’s nothing that says you can’t move to where you are based and live there – if you can afford to move your belongings to the new location and set up a home. There are reasons why certain domiciles are junior (the pilot bases with the lowest seniority pilots). Those places either have too high a cost of living or they are in locations where you wouldn’t want to live unless you grew up there.

One of the few remaining perks of being an airline crew member is the ability to live where you want without much regard to where your flying is based. Commuting to work in another part of the country adds a day or two to each trip that you fly, but it gives needed stability to your family.

The media is in the business of selling papers and commercial time. They will sensationalize whatever they can if it will accomplish that goal. The use of crash pads and sleeping lounges to catch some needed rest is not going to change. There will still be five-flight days that start early and finish late. And the long work day will be followed by a 10-hour layover that starts when the aircraft door opens that night to off-load the passengers and stops when it closes for the next morning’s flight. There will still be pilots commuting across the country to go to work so that their families can live in a stable location that they an afford.

Pilot crash pads will always be part of the ‘airline pilot experience’. The only difference that you will find is the quality of the quarters. And that is directly related to the level of experience (read pay rate) of the pilots occupying them.

Fatigue – When You’re Tired of Everything

Fatigue is part of the reason it was such a long time between posts recently. I got home after a 13-day trip and was just plain drained of energy. After having made these long trips for the past 15 years, or so, we have developed a few rules that we follow when I return home. I mentioned those previously and will link to that post at the bottom of the page.

It was just a coincidence (I assume) that waiting for me on my desk when I returned was an ALPA magazine with an insert titled The Airline Pilot’s Guide to Fighting Fatigue. A few days later, when I could again focus and interpret what I was reading, I looked through the pamphlet to see what it said that I should be doing to minimize the ‘drained’ feeling I always have when I get home. It was put together by the union’s Fatigue Blue Ribbon panel, formed in 2007. photo from Flickr by Peat Bakke

What is fatigue?

One of the initial points the panel brought out is that fatigue is not just being drowsy or tired. The  MedlinePlus website, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health says that

Fatigue is different from drowsiness. In general, drowsiness is feeling the need to sleep, while fatigue is a lack of energy and motivation. Drowsiness and apathy (a feeling of indifference or not caring about what happens) can be symptoms of fatigue.

The Mayo Clinic says that fatigue can be caused by one or more of the following five factors:

  1. Lack of sleep,
  2. Stress or anxiety,
  3. Inactivity,
  4. Eating habits, or
  5. Certain medications

All of these factors except the medications could easily be present in a professional pilot’s daily schedule. Pilots are regulated fairly heavily in the medication department, with only a small number of relatively benign medications acceptable for use.

Lack of sleep can definitely have detrimental effects on your ability to function efficiently. According to the Canadian Safety Council:

Losing as little as two hours of sleep can negatively affect alertness and performance. Sleep deprivation affects a person’s carefulness and ability to respond to an emergency. Symptoms can include: decreased judgment, decision-making and memory; slower reaction time; lack of concentration; fixation; and worsened mood.

I had never seen a comparison of the effects of fatigue to the effects of alcohol, but apparently studies have linked the two lists of symptoms and effects and a fatigue-induced relative alcohol content is possible. Being awake for 17 hours is comparable to a blood-alcohol level of .05% (above the legal limit for flying). If that time is extended to 24 hours without sleep, it is equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of .10% ( legally drunk). I’d rather be off duty and having the drinks, myself.

The physiology of fatigue involves both the amount and quality of sleep that you get as well as your body’s circadian rhythm. Studies have shown that the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Sleep loss is cumulative and losing one hour of sleep a night for a week is equivalent to just not sleeping at all for one of those nights. I know from experience that the older you get, the harder it is to get a good night’s sleep. Sometimes the loss of sleep is due to something simple like too many liquids close to bed time, other times it’s a function of the stresses of life popping into a brain that seems to not want to shut off. The pamphlet reinforced this when it brought out that older crew members (50-60 yrs old) on long haul flights tended to have 3.5 times more sleep loss than their younger counterparts (20-30 years old).

Circadian Rhythm

Our bodies have an internal clock that tends to regulate our sleep/wake cycles that is called “circadian rhythm.” The Medical College of Wisconsin on their Healthlink site has this description:

Circadian rhythms are regular changes in mental and physical characteristics that occur in the course of a day (circadian is Latin for “around a day”). Most circadian rhythms are controlled by the body’s biological “clock.” This clock, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN, is actually a pair of pinhead-sized brain structures that together contain about 20,000 neurons. The SCN rests in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, just above the point where the optic nerves cross. Light that reaches photoreceptors in the retina (a tissue at the back of the eye) creates signals that travel along the optic nerve to the SCN.

Signals from the SCN travel to several brain regions, including the pineal gland, which responds to light-induced signals by switching off production of the hormone melatonin. The body’s level of melatonin normally increases after darkness falls, making people feel drowsy. The SCN also governs functions that are synchronized with the sleep/wake cycle, including body temperature, hormone secretion, urine production, and changes in blood pressure.

The body clock isn’t like a watch, however, and will take days or weeks to synchronize to a new time zone. That means that flight crews will probably never adapt to the new time zone at their layover location. Some crew members use their layover time zone to sleep, others try to stay on their home time zone for their sleep/wake cycles and some vary their method depending on the length of their scheduled trip. You have to figure out what works for you.

The ALPA pamphlet provides some ‘helpful hints’ you can use to get better rest.photo from Flickr by obo-bobolina

  1. If you can’t fall asleep in 15-20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing that will help you feel more sleepy. (Reading an aircraft or company manual seems to work for me.) Then try again – and don’t stare at the clock!
  2. Make the room as dark and quiet as possible. (Most of our hotels have blackout curtains. I use earplugs, some people have ‘white noise’ machines.)
  3. Take a hot shower before bed. The body exerts energy to cool itself, which will increase drowsiness and make it easier to get to sleep.
  4. Go to your ‘happy place.’ Relaxing thoughts or images can help you fall asleep.
  5. Eat the right stuff. No large meals, lots of liquids or large shots of protein before bed. The effects of caffeine can last as long as 4 hours. Dairy products, bananas, turkey and granola will help you get to sleep. Stay hydrated, dehydration causes fatigue.
  6. Avoid alcohol less than 3 hours before bed time. It may help you get to sleep, but the sleep you experience will not be as restful as if you had abstained.
  7. Exercise, but not less than 3 hours before bed. It will help you get a deeper sleep, but too close to bed time will make it harder to get to sleep.

For those of you in Canada, the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CAR 720-23) allow “controlled rest on the flight deck” for air carriers with it included in their Operating Specifications. That means it’s legal to coordinate with the remaining crew and then take a short nap while you’re in the seat. A 20-minute nap can increase alertness by 50%, take 40 minute nap and alertness gets a 100% increase. The U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations have no such provision. I guess the FAA just doesn’t believe that all this research on fatigue is anything to worry about.

Fatigue was one of the concerns I had when I checked out as a narrow-body captain. I live on the west coast and knew that a lot of my trips would be on the east coast with morning departures as early as 6 am.  As the captain, you have to be alert enough to analyze the situation and make the appropriate decision as well as monitor the operation of the aircraft. The trips, long-haul or domestic, are never long enough for your body to adapt to the time zone changes. You have to do the best you can to get exercise, eat as well as you can and sleep whenever it’s convenient. At least the U.S. regulations limit the time you can be on duty without a break. There are flight time limitations (such as 30 flight hours in 7 days) and there are limits on the length of time you can be on duty in the cockpit without a break (which varies with the number of required crew members and whether it is domestic or international flying). There are also minimum crew rest times between work periods. It all sounds good on paper, but your alertness hinges on your ability to sleep on your break/crew rest or the night before the flight.

What do you do to ensure you have the rest you need to complete your next flight as safely as possible?


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