When passengers nod off on an airliner, they should be able to relax in the comfort of knowing their pilot will not be taking a catnap in the cockpit or noodling around on his personal laptop. It has not been officially determined why the crew of Northwest Flight 188 lost track of time and place last week and flew in radio silence for more than an hour, blowing past the Minneapolis airport by 150 miles. If, as the crew claims, they pulled out personal laptops on the flight deck to research new scheduling protocols, they should be fired.
The escapade ignited a national debate over whether airline pilots should be sleeping on the job, literally or figuratively. Carriers often push crews to the limits allowed by law, and too many crews are flying when they are either sick or fatigued. And because modern aircraft can all but fly themselves through much of a routine, monotonous flight, a crew can become distracted or inattentive to the job at hand. The first problem requires that government set reasonable rules on required rest for crews. The second simply requires a commitment for pilots to do their jobs when the lives of others depend upon it.
Even if fatigue was not the contributing factor with the inexcusable behavior of the Northwest pilots, there have been enough incidents to cause the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board to take a hard look at the rules regarding rest time and ensure that commercial pilots are not flying unless they are well and rested. Current rules require eight-hour rest periods between flights, but if that "rest" includes travel and meal time, it is clearly inadequate.
Just last week, a Delta Boeing 767 bound from Rio de Janeiro landed on a taxiway instead of a runway at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. One of the crew was sick and had to be moved from the flight deck to the cabin, and the long overnight flight could have left the crew fatigued. It could have ended in disaster had another plane been taxiing when the Delta jet landed in the wrong place.
In February, a sick and tired crew made a series of errors piloting Continental Connection Flight 3407 before it crashed in upstate New York and killed all 49 aboard. A year before, two Go airline pilots admitted falling asleep and overshooting an airport in Hawaii by 20 miles. The same thing happened on an overnight flight from Baltimore to Denver five years ago when both pilots fell asleep. And in 1998, all three pilots fell asleep on a jumbo jet flying from Seoul to Anchorage.
Only the New York crash resulted in deaths. But these mishaps are happening often enough that the FAA should adjust the rules to ensure pilots have adequate rest and cannot be pressured to fly when too tired or ill. With passengers clamoring for ever-cheaper air fares, the free market will not fix this problem by itself. It's one thing to make passengers pay extra for more checked luggage. But they shouldn't have to pay with their lives because a pilot fell asleep at the controls.