They just assume that the autopilot will take care of flying the plane, and their skills get rusty with lack of use. Then, if something goes wrong with the autopilot system the pilot and his or her crew members may not know what to do and they may not react as quickly as they need to in order to protect the passengers and the rest of the crew members from serious harm (Human, 2009).
The majority of people need to sleep approximately eight hours each night. If they do not get that level of sleep, they can be overly tired and that can cause them to make more mistakes than they otherwise would (Human, 2009). However, someone who has gotten eight hours of sleep is not necessarily caught up on his or her sleep. The quality of sleep the person has gotten and how tired he or she was before the sleep cycle occurred can also affect whether a person is rested after eight hours of sleep (Human, 2009). Some people need a little bit more sleep, and other people can function just fine on a bit less, but if a person is getting under six or seven hours of sleep consistently, he or she may not be a good choice to fly an airplane or be part of that airplane's crew until the sleep deficit is erased.
People who sleep very lightly and wake up easily and often may sleep nine or ten hours per night and still not feel as though they are rested. People who sleep well and solidly might be fine after seven hours. The lack of sleep that plagues flight crews and pilots generally comes not only from the hectic work schedule that they have but from the stress that they feel while they are on the job. Mental stress and strain weighs heavy on pilots and flight crews because they are responsible for so many people's lives (Human, 2009). Flying at night can also be highly stressful, as can the frequent changing of time zones. Some people feel that only physically demanding jobs cause fatigue, but mental stress and strain can be just as tiring, if not more so, when there is a lot of responsibility at stake.
What does this mean to the aviation industry and to the people who fly frequently? It means that the flight schedules and rest times may need to be changed for pilots and flight crews. There is some leeway expected, of course, because tired stewardesses are not as dangerous as tired pilots (Human, 2011). All members of the flight crew should have the option to be well-rested and ready for their shifts, but pilots have the most responsibility and the most difficult jobs. It simply stands to reason that there would be less human error in aviation if there were fewer overly-tired pilots handling large aircraft on a low amount of sleep and a high amount of stress. Pilots and crews often fly together regularly, so if the stewardesses and other flight crew members are tired, it is a relatively safe assumption that the pilot is also tired (Human, 2009). That is something to consider when it comes to aviation safety.
Even when it is clear that the pilots are tired and changes need to be made, it is not possible to fix things overnight. Some universities, though, are interested in looking for ways to correct the pilot and crew fatigue issues. In 1997, for example, Embry-Riddle University released a statement saying that they were going to offer two new degrees that would help to enhance the ideas behind human performance (Harris & Muir, 2005). That would help to make flying safer for everyone who is involved with it. Of course, not all universities are doing that sort of thing, and getting a degree from a university will not necessarily help someone correct every sleep-deprivation problem in the airline industry. Still, changes need to be made and it is very encouraging to see people realizing that and finding ways to attempt to make it better (Portal, 2011). As more of that takes place, air traffic will get safer.
One of the issues that Embry-Riddle addressed in their press release was that there may actually be a larger chance for accidents to take place if the plane is easy to fly. That sounds odd, of course, but autopilot and monitoring by computer means that the large majority of the time that the pilot co-pilot are "flying" the plane, they are actually just allowing the autopilot to do the work (Portal, 2011). Pilots can get bored and unhappy when they are really not allowed to do a large segment of the job that they were trained for, and when they are bored and unhappy they are not paying attention to the needs of their passengers and their aircraft. Complacency can be a serious issue for pilots, and the more complacency that is seen with pilots the less they will be able to do if the plane actually experiences a problem (Portal, 2011).
Universities like Embry-Riddle are not the only places that are concerned with the issue of aviation safety as it relates to human error and flight crew fatigue. The FAA is also concerned about making flying safer - and may be interested in closing the loopholes that have allowed pilots to fly extra hours if the plane that they are flying is empty. Right now, the FAA is looking into ways in which flying can be made safer, and Congress has increased funding and support for research that deals with issues like sleep deprivation and other factors that relate to aviation safety (The role, 2008). Since funding has been increased, the FAA has been exploring options for the best ways to make flying safer. If they can lower the level of fatigue that pilots and crew members feel, there is a better chance that air travel will be safe and that human error will not enter the aviation safety domain (The role, 2008).
It is actually very easy to see how people who fly planes and deal with passengers in the air on a nearly daily basis could get tired and need a break. Since current FAA rules apply to the flights that have passengers on them, it is very easy for pilots and crew members to get more air time than would otherwise be considered safe. It would be technically possible for a pilot to fly for 24 hours straight on planes that have no passengers, and then pick up a plane containing passenger and fly it across the country (Harris & Muir, 2005). That would not violate the FAA rules, but it would violate common sense and be incredibly unsafe. Still, there is no proof that this kind of thing does not take place.
Just asking pilots and flight crews if they are tired is not nearly enough. Current research shows that people feel more alert, rested, and awake than they actually are quite frequently. In a society that is very busy and stressful, sleep deprivation is common. However, many people keep going, and they try to convince themselves that they feel good and that there are no problems with their lack of sleep. When they are tested for psychological and mental function, they perform poorly because they really do not have the level of alertness that they assume they have.
Once someone has been aware for 24 hours, for example, that person's motor control is equivalent to someone who is legally drunk as it is defined in most states. While people who were about to get on a plane would not want to be flown to their destination by a drunk pilot, they do not think much about having a sleep-deprived pilot at the helm (Harris & Muir, 2005). Human errors in aviation safety would be much less of an issue if pilots would get enough sleep and encourage their flight crews to do the same. When they do that, they are much more likely to be safe in the air, and that helps to protect their lives as well as the lives of their crews and passengers. Airline safety can be even better than it is today when pilots and crews get enough sleep.
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