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Sleepiness is a huge problem for airline pilots, study finds

You might want to bring a cup of black coffee to the pilot on your next flight.

Results from a major study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation suggest airline pilots are some of the sleepiest transportation workers in the country, along with train operators.

One in four pilots and train operators surveyed for the study admitted that sleepiness has affected their job performance at least once a week, compared to about 17 percent of non-transportation workers.

And a significant number of pilots and train operators say that sleepiness has caused safety problems on the job. Of the pilots surveyed, 20 percent admitted that they have made a serious error because of sleepiness. About 18 percent of train operators — either an engineer or conductor — likewise reported they’ve had a “near miss” due to sleepiness. The study, released last week, has a high confidence level of 95 percent.

These workers know that they are tired — more than 50 percent of pilots and train operators reported taking at least one nap on work days, compared to only about 25 percent of non-transportation workers.

John M. Cox, CEO of Safety Operating Systems who served as a pilot with US Airways for 25 years, said the study hits on an industry challenge that goes back 40 years.

“A lot of it is because the transportation system does run 24-7, 365 days a year, and staffing is tight.” said Scott, an air safety expert. “There has been an issue of matching the needs of the transportation system with that of the individual.”

Pilot fatigue has become an increasingly hot topic. It is believed to be behind some recent tragic air crashes, including one in 2009 near Buffalo, N.Y., involving a regional jet flown by two tired pilots. The accident killed 50 people — 49 people on board and one person on the ground.

In December, concern over pilot sleepiness sparked new rules by the Federal Aviation Association for passenger flights. Carriers have two years to incorporate the rules, which limit the maximum time a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty, including waiting between flights and performing administrative duties, to between nine and 14 hours. The total work time is dependent on when pilots begin their first flight in a day and the number of time zones crossed. The rules order that the maximum amount of time pilots can be scheduled to fly is limited to eight or nine hours with a minimum of 10 hours of rest between shifts. The new rules raised controversy among pilots’ unions because they do not also cover pilots flying cargo.

What will be very interesting is seeing the study redone after the FAA’s new rule changes on combating fatigue have been in place for at least a year, Cox said.

 “I’m very hopeful about this and that it will reduce pilot fatigue,” he said. “It will be much more telling to look forward a year from now to see if we need to make any adjustments in the flight time duty time regulations.”

Thomas J. Balkin, Ph.D., chief of the Department of Behavioral Biology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, served as chairman of the Sleep Foundation study. He conceded its results were unsettling.

“It is disturbing, of course, because of their being transportation workers, we place a lot of trust and responsibility in them for transporting us and our goods safely,” Balkin told msnbc.com. “When they make an error or have a sleepiness-related accident, there is the possibility of a catastrophe.”

The study examined a sample of 1,087 adults over age 25, and consisted of a control group of 292 non-transportation workers, 202 pilots, 203 truck drivers, 180 rail transportation workers and 210 bus, taxi and limo drivers.

The study "vividly illustrates the risk posed by fatigue among transportation workers and the particular challenges that airline pilots face in delivering on their commitment to achieving the highest standards of safety," said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, in a statement.

In addition to raising concerns about compromised work performance, the study suggests simply getting to and from the job is a safety concern for these workers: Sleepiness played a role in a significantly higher rate of car accidents during commutes for pilots and train operators compared to the general public: 6 percent reported they have been involved in a car accident due to sleepiness while commuting as compared to 1 percent of the public.

“One of the things we hope is that [the study] will encourage general scientists to consider this problem,” Balkin said, “There is no Breathalyzer test for sleepiness.”

The Federal Aviation Administration announced a set of tough new rules, based on the science of what the human body goes through flying through multiple time zones, to ensure that commercial pilots are rested before they fly. NBC's Tom Costello reports

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