To fly, but not to sleep

Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

As we cram into airplanes this holiday season, there is an aspect of air travel that we're likely to be putting out of our minds -- pilots asleep at the yoke and flight attendants so tired their mental states can be likened to a drunken stupor.

Most Americans are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act, which since 1938 has limited the workday to eight hours and the workweek to 40 hours. Airlines, which are governed by the Federal Aviation Administration, are exempt. They can push their workers up to 20 hours a day, without bearing the cost of overtime pay, which discourages such practice.

The toll this can take on pilots has been in the news since a Northwest Airlines flight overshot its destination two months ago. But the rest of the flight crew is also suffering.

As a former flight attendant, I fought two in-flight fires, calmed thousands of passengers through mechanical failures and assisted in more medical emergencies than I can recall. I have also fallen asleep standing up. I've snuck naps in the lavatory, sitting on the toilet with a dirty airline pillow wedged between my shoulder and the sink. I've been outright incapable of figuring the simple arithmetic required for liquor accounting. I have asked a passenger what he wanted to drink and then stuck a bag of pretzels into a cup before handing it to him.

This level of exhaustion is dangerous. Several sleep studies have shown that 17 hours of wakefulness is equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent. Between 19 and 24 hours of wakefulness, that number goes up to 0.10 percentm - over the legal limit for driving in every U.S. state and considerably over the FAA restriction of 0.04 percent. Chronically sleeping only four to six hours a night is as harmful to cognitive performance as missing two entire nights of sleep.

For crew and passenger safety, the FAA mandates that flight attendants work a maximum of 14 hours, extendable to 20 hours, with minimum rest periods of nine hours, reducible to eight hours. Pilots have slightly different restrictions - 16 hours maximum and up to 18 hours if necessary.

These guidelines were intended as extreme outer limits, and it was expected that they'd be reined in by collective bargaining agreements. But after years of losses, cutbacks and contract renegotiations have made long shifts and short recoveries standard operating procedure at too many airlines, from national and international carriers to regional companies.

For flight crews, an eight-hour rest period begins 15 minutes after "door open" on landing to the next day's push-back from the gate. It's ludicrous: Flight crews must be at the airport an hour before flight time -- to check in, go through a security screening, get briefed, board the plane and even pass out pre-departure beverages to first-class passengers. But all of that work is counted as "rest." When you take into account transportation to and from a hotel, which could be 30 or more minutes away, or finding something to eat at the end of a "day," crew members may only have an opportunity for four or five hours' sleep.

Contrast that with the Air Force, which, despite being at war, must give its air crews (including flight attendants and those performing flight attendant duties) a minimum of 12 hours' rest.

Of course, not all airlines push their crews to the limit. For example, Southwest Airlines, year after year the most profitable carrier, has the highest-paid flight attendants and pilots in the industry. For flight attendants, it offers a reasonable 10.5-hour maximum "duty day," which can be pushed to 12.5 hours; pilots' maximum "duty day" is 13 hours, which can be pushed to 15 hours.

Why don't flight crew members simply migrate to the best airlines? I can answer that for flight attendants: Partly, it's an issue of seniority. If someone leaves one airline after, say, 15 years, they will lose that seniority at a new airline, which not only means a pay cut but also several years of being on call 24 hours a day. But mostly it's because they dream of the good old days, which in the airline industry means pre-9/11, when the industry was in better shape and such brutal schedules were the exception not the rule. Like anyone in an abusive relationship, they are living in denial. And a bit of fear. If they demand more, managers threaten, the airline will go under.

If an airline worries it can't afford to hire more flight attendants should schedules require safe doses of sleep, we should remind its shareholders that the company could get hundreds of them for the price of one chief executive officer. Though rested, the CEO won't be much help when your Airbus dives into the Hudson.

• Tiffany Hawk spent five years as a flight attendant at United Airlines and Virgin America before becoming a travel writer.

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