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British pilots’ fatigue is warning for aviation industry

Aircraft today have become so sophisticated that landing planes has become routine. So routine pilots can do it with their eyes shut? No, thanks.

British aviation authorities recently admitted that a 300-passenger airliner en route to London operated on autopilot in August as both of its pilots slept at the controls. No other details have been released, but the revelation led to a survey of 500 British airline pilots in which nearly 60 percent said they’ve fallen asleep while flying, and almost one in three said when they woke up, they realized that the other pilot had nodded off. This raises serious safety questions about whether pilots are getting enough sleep.

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Having pilots nap in shifts may actually improve safety, particularly on long-haul flights. While a plane is at cruising altitude, pilots don’t so much fly it as monitor systems and troubleshoot. But in some ways, that makes it more imperative that they come aboard well-rested. In 2009, the crash of Continental flight 3047 outside Buffalo was ultimately blamed on significant ice build-up, but pilot fatigue and inattention contributed to the accident, which killed 50 people. Starting in January, the Federal Aviation Administration will require pilots to have a minimum 10-hour rest period and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep before working up to 14 hours.

The European Parliament, on the other hand, recently rejected rules that would give leeway for pilots to land planes after up to 22 hours without sleep, a level of tiredness that pilot union officials equate to being four times over the legal alcohol limit for flying. British and European flights come and go from Logan Airport every day. Travelers deserve further reassurance that EU carriers will abide by strong safety standards.

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