Fatigue-fighting strategies taking off

Pilots in a plane cockpit

Research from the Sleep/Wake Research Centre has highlighted how pilots use in-flight sleep to manage fatigue, and the things they do before flying to prepare.

Dr Jennifer Zaslona

Dr Jennifer Zaslona.

Many of us know how hard it can be to sleep on a long haul flight, but have you ever wondered how flight crew members manage their sleep?

Research from Massey University’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre has highlighted how pilots use in-flight sleep to manage fatigue, and what they do before they fly to prepare.

The study, led by Dr Jennifer Zaslona, examined qualitative feedback from 291 pilots on 17 different flights, across three aircraft types. The research involved pilots from four airlines based across three continents. The feedback had been collected during previous studies on sleep and performance, and surveyed pilots on their sleep at home, in-flight sleep, fatigue and performance on specific flight routes.

Dr Zaslona says the analyses of pilots’ comments aimed to document their perspectives on in-flight sleep and the fatigue mitigation strategies they use on long-range and ultra-long range flights. After systematically coding comments from the pilots, the researchers found that several common themes emerged.

“On long range [longer than eight hours] and ultra-long range [longer than 16 hours] flights, in-flight sleep is one of the main methods recommended to manage pilots’ fatigue and sleepiness. On long flights, pilots are provided with crew rest facilities that can range from an economy class seat to a separate lie-flat bunk area depending on the flight,” she says.

“Pilots in our study made good use of their in-flight sleep opportunities, as recommended, and unsurprisingly they preferred the crew bunk area to the seat in the passenger cabin. However, they also highlighted ways in which the comfort of the crew bunk can be improved, for instance by reducing noise disturbances or providing softer mattresses.”

Dr Zaslona says the type, location and design of the crew rest facility could adversely affect in-flight sleep duration and quality. “Some pilots linked their poor sleep to decreased alertness, increased fatigue and decreased performance.”

A small group of pilots reported that fatigue was “never an issue”, or that they just “live with it”. Dr Zaslona says the first response is encouraging. “This suggests the fatigue mitigation strategies currently in place are effective, however the contrary ‘tough it out’ attitude raises the question of whether these mitigations are sufficient, and highlights the importance of educating pilots on the negative effects of fatigue during flights.

“Effectively managing fatigue risk requires all parties, including regulators, airlines and pilots, to do their part. Fatigue is a whole-of-life issue – it is impacted by your work but also by what you do outside of work. This is what underpins the concept of ‘shared responsibility’ in fatigue risk management.”

Many pilots also tried to prepare themselves before the flight, either by sleeping in on the day of their trip to get more rest or by increasing their awake time prior to their trip, so they would have an easier time falling asleep during their scheduled in-flight naps.

“There were different strategies for flight preparation but many pilots indicated it is helpful for them to know ahead of time which rest breaks they will be allocated during the flight so they could best prepare.”

When it came to reducing sleep disruption, pilots also had different strategies such as limiting their liquid intake and avoiding caffeine so they could sleep all the way through each rest break. “Some pilots also used ear plugs and eye masks, and ensured the bunk area was cool and comfortable, to help create an environment more conducive to good quality sleep. Techniques to increase alertness during duty periods included caffeine, conversation, and the use of bright lights in the cockpit.”

Shared responsibility for managing fatigue: Hearing the pilots, was co-authored by Dr Jennifer Zaslona, Dr Karyn O’Keeffe, Associate Professor Leigh Signal and Professor Philippa Gander from the Sleep/Wake Research Centre, Massey University.

Dr Zaslona was funded by a doctoral scholarship awarded by the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan provided by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission.

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