I’m soooo tired

One of the common buzzwords in aviation, especially lately, is fatigue. We all know that fatigue can be debilitating, and that it can kill you. Fatigue hits all of us at some point in our lives, and not just when we are flying. It can come on when driving, reading, exercising or just watching TV. But in an airplane, it can be lethal.

The Colgan accident in Buffalo added some measure of urgency to the issue, even though it was drowned out by the noise made over the conduct of the crew in what should have been a sterile cockpit environment. What makes fatigue so difficult to pin down are two things: it can not be measured by a blood test (yet), and it is difficult at times to determine the cause of fatigue in a given instance.

For airline or busy charter pilots—that is, people who fly for a living, and not after their regular work day—fatigue has been a major point of contention in conversations with the FAA as the feds work to rewrite decades old flight time/duty time (FTDT) rules. One of the underlying issues is a simple question: What causes fatigue in pilots? It is not a simple question to answer. In no particular order, here is a brief list of what causes pilots to fly tired.

1. Time zone changes. This one is easy to comprehend. Even if you have never left your time zone, the chances are you have gone through the annual daylight savings time changes. Imagine a pilot on a four-day trip with two or even three time zone changes that throw off his body clock.

2. Lousy schedules/lots of legs. Airline schedules are driven by the larger economy. When times are a-booming, pilots fly a lot of hours and/or legs in a day. I used to fly six or seven flights a day routinely, and by the end of the day I was wiped out; four to five is ideal. Currently, the economy is still struggling, and the opposite is true. I don’t fly many hours or legs a day, and spend hours at a time—anywhere from two to five—sitting between flights. I once did three sits of three hours each in one day. Sitting around in uncomfortable airport chairs will tire even the most hardy individual, and the end result is that it takes a longer day to get your work in, so your nights—and your sleep periods—are shorter.

3. Hotel issues. While major airline pilots still stay in the better hotels, regional pilots often find themselves in much less luxurious accommodations. I am lucky in that my airline puts us in some very nice hotels. But other carriers put their crews up in the likes of the Motel 6 or Super 8, and a Comfort Inn might be their version of ‘high class.’ The problems with lesser hotels are many-fold: the beds are not as comfortable, the pillows are usually lousy, the air-conditioners and heaters are noisy and sporadic, and noise is a never-ending problem, especially on the first floor or near ice machines.

4. Long duty days. This is probably the biggest cause of fatigue for pilots. Days can start in the dark, and then end in the dark. While some union contracts limit duty days to twelve hours, most allow for at least a fourteen-hour day, and the FAR’s allow for sixteen hours, which is far too long. It’s bad enough to start a sixteen-hour day at eight in the morning, but if you wake up at eight and your work day starts at four in the afternoon, you may be awake for well over twenty hours when you finally set the brake. It’s easy to suggest that someone with a late start should just take a nap, but not everyone naps easily (like me), and sometimes a suitable rest facility just isn’t available.

One of the moves within the industry is to establish the length of the duty day based on the start time of the duty period, which would take into account normal circadian rhythms, thus limiting some exposure to fatigue-related accidents and incidents. The airlines are very resistant to changing the rules on FTDT because of the increased costs that would be required by additional needed personnel.

5. No APU. Specifically, this means no air conditioning. The auxiliary power unit (APU) is a small jet engine in the rear of all airliner jets and a large number of turboprops. It provides both electricity via a generator and air conditioning via its bleed air, which is circulated through the cabin by way of the packs. When the APU is deferred—that is, inoperative—or is not installed as may be the case on some smaller turboprops, the airplane can get oppressively hot, and the cockpit will always be ten to fifteen degrees hotter than the cabin. Dehydration becomes a major concern, as does fatigue.

6. Short nights. Unfortunately, what was scheduled to be a long overnight can become a short one if the crew is running late due to factors beyond anyone’s control. Weather, mechanical problems, and just bad luck can have a negative impact on the schedule. Because the FAA considers “transportation local in nature” to be part of a rest period, what appears to be an eight hour rest period is often only five or maybe six hours of sleep. While you are guaranteed to have “make up” rest the next night, it doesn’t make you feel any better while flying tired.

7. Stress. Any stress, be it work related or from your personal life, affects your job performance, no matter what line of work you are in. Where others have stress in dealing with deadlines for projects, etc., pilots deal with time away from home, low pay at “starter” airlines, and in this day and age, bankruptcies and company survival. But no matter what your source of stress, it will affect your concentration, your ability to sleep, your diet, and your energy level.

8. Commuting. This is a major stressor, and it is one that got a lot of attention in the aftermath of the aforementioned flight 3407. When you must live beyond driving distance from your domicile, you are, in the industry parlance a commuter. That means you fly from city A to city B, and it is very common for pilots and flight attendants. By and large, commuting is a great privilege and one of the perks of the job, but it isn’t for everyone, and at times it is an unnecessary evil.

9. Altitudes. A jet airliner at altitude is flying with a cabin altitude at or above that of Denver. Less oxygen is available, and it catches up to you. Make several climbs and descents to higher altitudes in a day, and you can’t help but be tired. The best cure during the course of a day is to drink plenty of water and to eat as healthy as possible, especially fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Sugar, salt and caffeine only make the fatigue worse.

10. No pay for fatigue calls. This is a dirty little secret at the airlines. The airlines all view fatigue calls with a certain degree of suspicion, and some with outright derision, and few (if any) pay you for calling in fatigued. The end result is pilots either fly tired, or they call in sick in order to get paid. Either way, nobody really knows just how bad fatigue problems really are, because it is so hard to collect the data to draw an accurate conclusion. It’s a far bigger problem than most people realize, but it is up to us as individuals to deal with as smartly and properly as we can.

As I said, this is not an all-inclusive list. Nor is it in any particular order. I hope that it provides some food for thought and a basis for understanding not just that fatigue is an issue, but what it is that causes fatigue in pilots.


–Chip Wright

  • Wright

    Very well Written Article, Chip.
    You hit the mark dead center.