While the thought of a pilot napping at the controls of a commercial jetliner makes both air travelers and federal regulators understandably uneasy, a new report by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Professor Stephen Rice finds that the practice known as controlled rest in place is already employed by the military and may have unheralded safety benefits.
Should commercial pilots be permitted to nap on the flight deck under strictly controlled circumstances? The answer, it seems, depends entirely on who you ask.
According to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) Professor of Aviation Human Factors Stephen Rice, the stigma associated with allowing crew members to nap during flights doesn’t necessarily match reality when it comes to allowing fatigued pilots to avail themselves of a controlled rest in position (CRIP) in the cockpit. In a report published in Forbes, Professor Rice notes that while the practice is used in the military and permitted by Canada and Australia, so far, regulators in the U.S. have resisted allowing CRIP as a means to mitigate fatigue among light crews.
Far from just allowing pilots to nod off whenever they feel a bit tired, where permitted, on-duty rest periods for flight crew are tightly regulated and can only occur under specific circumstances. According to a 2009 study by the Flight Safety Foundation, CRIP is generally permitted only after other crew members, including cabin crew, have been alerted. Pilots taking an authorized “in seat’ rest break are subject to a specific window of time and are not to resume duties immediately to prevent the risk of still being groggy or more specially to limit the effects of “sleep inertia.” According to a NASA study cited in the report, allowing in-flight naps, under the right circumstances, could greatly enhance overall flight crew alertness.
“The benefits of the nap were observed through the critical descent and landing phases of flight,” NASA sleep researchers concluded. “The nap did not affect layover sleep or the cumulative sleep debt displayed by the majority of crew members. The nap procedures were implemented with minimal disruption to usual flight operations, and there were no reported or identified concerns regarding safety.”
Highly regulated or not, it seems the flying public is not especially enthusiastic about their pilots being asleep at the controls. A recent ERAU survey found that passengers “are less willing” to fly in situations in which crews are allowed to take naps on the flight deck. This overall consensus remains intact even if flyers are made aware both of the strict rules governing CRIP and the potential safety benefits of allowing pilots to take rest breaks in the cockpit.
Another survey by the same university found, however, that the overwhelming majority of commercial pilots support rule changes to allow for CRIP. Nearly two-thirds of pilots polled believe in-flight naps in very specific circumstances could enhance safety. In some cases, pilots who opposed the rule change indicated that they believe airlines would abuse the policy as “a patch for failed scheduling.”