Pilot and Train Operator Fatigue — Is It Taken Seriously Enough?

by Brenda Johnson | March 8th, 2012

A poll recently conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) revealed that many transportation professionals struggle with sleepiness on the job, and that it affects public safety in serious ways.   The NSF’s 2012 Sleep in America poll is the first to ask professional pilots and train operators about their sleep habits, and the responses are a wakeup call.  One in four pilots and train operators reported that they experienced potentially dangerous levels of sleepiness on the job at least once a week.  One in five pilots admitted they had made serious errors due to sleepiness, and nearly as many train operators made the same admission.  These professionals also are at greater risk of fatigue-related car accidents while traveling to and from work.  Train operators and pilots also reported higher levels of sleep dissatisfaction than other workers, with nearly two-thirds of all train operators and one half of all pilots reporting that they seldom get a good night’s sleep on work nights.

The work hours of pilots and train operators have long been the subject of federal regulation, but many of these regulations have only recently been brought up to date.    While Congress first regulated train employees’ work hours in 1907 when it passed the Rail Hours of Service Act, it took 100 years for Congress to enact a major overhaul of the rules for freight workers when it passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008.  Subsequently, in 2011, the Federal Railroad Administration promulgated rules specifically for passenger and commuter train employers.  In that same year, however, the General Accounting Office reported that the RSIA did not go far enough to address fatigue risks.  And while the Federal Aviation Administration recently issued sweeping changes to the rules governing commercial airline pilots in the wake of the February 12, 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, in which pilot fatigue was believed to play a role, these changes will not take effect until December 2013, and will govern only passenger flight operations.  Cargo carriers are exempt, and though FAA officials have asked them to voluntarily adopt the new rules, major carriers such as FedEx and UPS say they will not, since they believe their company standards exceed federal requirements.

Authored by: Attorney Brenda Johnson

For more information:
National Sleep Foundation Poll Explores Transportation Workers’ Sleep:  http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/press-release/sleepy-pilots-train-operators-and-drivers

FAA issues landmark rule changes on pilot fatigue, USA Today 12/21/2011:  http://travel.usatoday.com/flights/post/2011/12/faa-to-issue-rules-aimed-at-tired-airline-pilots-/589727/1

Pilot Fatigue Rules Unchanged at FedEx, UPS After U.S. Meeting, Bloomberg, March 1, 2012:  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-01/pilot-fatigue-rules-unchanged-at-fedex-ups.html

FRA’s final HOS rules for passenger, commuter service, United Transportation Union, Aug. 15, 2011:  http://utu.org/2011/08/15/fras-final-hos-rules-for-passenger-commuter-service/

Hours of Service Changes Have Increased Rest Time, but More Can Be Done to Address Fatigue Risks, GAO-11-853, Oct. 28, 2011:  http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-853