Monday, October 26, 2009

Feel like a nap?

As everyone knows, last Wednesday, October 21st, Northwest Airlines flight 188, an Airbus A320-200, en route from San Diego, CA to Minneapolis, MN with 147 passengers, overflew the Twin Cities airport by 150 miles before they turned back toward Minneapolis, after being alerted by a Flight Attendant.

Radio contact was lost with the flight when it was 130nm southeast of Denver, CO. The airplane continued and overflew their destination 62 minutes later, and continued on an easterly heading for another 15 minutes before radio communication was re-established about 110nm east of Minneapolis. The airplane then descended to FL320, turned around and landed safely in Minneapolis 45 minutes after radio contact was restored.

The NTSB reported that the crew told ATC that they had become distracted and had overflown Minneapolis, and now requested to return. According to post flight interviews, the FAA reported that the crew had engaged in a heated debate over airline policies and had lost situational awareness. The NTSB have opened an investigation, scheduled an interview with the crew and secured the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder of the airplane.

The Co-Pilot gave a short interview to CNN, insisting that they weren't sleeping and they weren't arguing, as everyone seems to suspect. In my (professional) opinion, a 'heated debate over airline policies' actually seems likely, as Northwest Airlines continues the integration process with Delta Airlines, their merger-buyout partner. In the future these two legacy carriers will be fully integrated as Delta, for now the NWA planes are being repainted, and Northwest Pilots have to adopt Delta's flight standards and procedures, a recent occurrence. This can encompass virtually every detail in how the pilots operate the airliner and perform the flights, and the reasons and philosophy behind the procedures. It is a credible cause for distraction, because procedures can vary widely from one airline to the next: most veteran airline pilots who are 'set in their ways' might likely oppose operating according to new procedures and standards.

However, it is not a valid excuse for overflying your destination, a major hub for the airline this Captain, at least, had presumably flown for at least a decade. That being said, I do not wish to disparage these Pilots, in fact, I'd like to express a little sympathy for them.

The following is a common saying, at least at the regional carriers, of the Captain briefing the Co-Pilot on 'nap' protocol while en-route on a 'long' flight (one of perhaps more than 2.5 hours): "Don't let me wake up to find you sleeping". It's cute and light hearted, but sets a certain standard at the same time, that IF (and that is a big if) one pilot is to 'catch a few winks', the other pilot shall handle everything involved in flying the plane, and shall be alert and awake. I don't adopt this saying, because I don't want the idea of napping in the flight deck to become commonplace in my operations. Do I ever do it or permit it? I won't deny that it hasn't occurred before; it is honestly a rare occurrence, perhaps a half dozen times a year. When it does occur, I prefer that a strict standard be set, and that it be allowed only because it is agreed upon that a rest will improve the alertness of the pilot in question.  It's all in the interest of safety, see?

I insist that if the Captain or First Officer wants to take a nap, that it first be approved by the Captain, that both crewmembers are comfortable with the idea, and that the remaining crewmember agrees to have complete responsibility for the aircraft, and will remain awake and alert.

Though when I think about it, we have a situation where only one pilot is awake in the flight deck frequently. The other pilot isn't sleeping; he isn't there, period. And it happens on long flights. What I'm speaking of is, of course, when a pilot has to take a bathroom break. On our regional jet the lavatory is in the back of the jet, and we tend to call it 'the walk of shame', somehow it's a macho thing to be able to hold your bladder (these youngsters at the regionals, ya know).

So what's the difference between a 5-10 minute bathroom break (we still have the same needs you do, you know) and a 15-20 minute snooze? Not much really. Actually, if an emergency occurs while a pilot is sleeping, he has a better chance to be a beneficial crew member than if one occurs while he is indisposed in the lavatory. It's all in how it is perceived, and I am trying to be sensitive to the public in that regard.

How could a pilot even consider taking a nap with all those passengers’ lives in his hands? Put yourself in the pilot's place. Think, you have a four day trip, all early shows, 5:30 AM vans to the airport. You're flying on the east coast but you live in Denver. On day three you have an accumulated sleep debt of 15-18 hours, and that's being generous. On that one long flight, with beautiful weather and a smooth ride, the sandman can come, with a vengeance. Reading puts you to sleep, and there is no energy to talk, or desire perhaps. Post 9-11 security protocol doesn't prohibit opening the door to fetch a cup of coffee, but it does discourage it somewhat. And coffee can only keep you awake and alert for so long.

Both pilots, sleeping? Absolutely unacceptable in any book, obviously. I'm not saying that these pilots were sleeping, but it has happened before, in Hawaii of all places. Read about last year's flight of Go! Airlines flight 1022.

As strange and as uncomfortable as it may sound, legalization of pilot napping could possibly become a reality in the future. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, "U.S. airlines and their unions have joined forces to push the Federal Aviation Administration to let pilots do what was once unthinkable: sleep on the job." Research has been performed and provides "overwhelming evidence that controlled napping provides significant" ways to reduce fatigue risk.

For now, I'm going to give these NWA Pilots the benefit of the doubt. In spite of the likelyhood that I haven't reassured you that your pilot isn't sleeping during your next long airline flight, let me tell you straight up: you have nothing to worry about. "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the flight. (And maybe take a nap, the air in the cabin is at pressurized to an 8,000 foot elevation, and that book you have is putting you to sleep anway!)".

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