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Pilots often take micro-naps. How much of a problem is it globally?


Indonesian officials are investigating the case of a commercial airliner bound for the capital, Jakarta, that veered off course earlier this year when both the pilot and the co-pilot fell asleep behind the controls. The plane, operated by domestic carrier Batik Air, landed safely. But sleeping pilots is not as uncommon as one might think. Last year, a survey in Europe found that three out of four responding pilots reported taking micro-sleeps while flying a plane in a one-month period. How much of a problem is it globally? Andrew Tangel covers aviation for the Wall Street Journal, and he joins us now. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW TANGEL: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So this is a little disturbing as somebody who flies a lot. I didn't realize pilots take micro-naps. What are regulatory authorities saying about this?

TANGEL: Well, pilots are not supposed to take micro-naps while they're in the cockpit.


TANGEL: There has been a lot of attention to pilot rest and pilot fatigue to improve safety. The - you know, the FAA and other regulatory agencies around the world have sought to figure out the right equation to figure out, you know, what is the best way to balance the demands of work, but also, you know, how they deal with jet lag, which they deal with every day, and how essentially to build a schedule around an opportunity for eight hours of good rest. So, sleeping in the cockpit should not be happening.

FADEL: What is the airline industry doing to manage what you describe - the exhaustion of their staff - so they're not sleeping in the cockpit?

TANGEL: Right. Well, pilots should not be dozing or sleeping at all in the cockpit. Airlines essentially work with their pilot unions and their crews to make sure that they can complete the flight successfully, get enough rest at whatever hotel they're getting to and make sure that there's no question about when they're 12 hours down the line, landing at a complicated airport, that they can handle, you know, a tricky landing or some sort of maneuver. Pilots have to be able to handle any type of flight emergency, and they need to do so with the appropriate amount of rest.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, in this case, things turned out OK. They veered off course, but they landed OK. But I think the big question a lot of people have is, should I be worried about how well-rested the pilots are? Are they asleep in the cockpit?

TANGEL: Right. And it's going to, you know, depend on a lot of things beyond the average passenger's control. You've got to consider what airline you're flying, what country you're flying in. Luckily, in the U.S., there's been a lot of attention to this over many, many decades.

FADEL: Andrew Tangel reports on aviation for the Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much, Andrew.

TANGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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