Boredom and fatigue at 35,000 feet

Do two distracted Northwest pilots portend a frightening breakdown in air safety? No. Plus: A personal note

Published October 30, 2009 12:30AM (EDT)

I know what you're wondering. How could a pair of experienced airline pilots allow their $50 million Airbus A320 to wander 150 miles off course, totally overflying its destination, before realizing the error and cowering back to land. So it went, for reasons not yet understood, with a Northwest Airlines flight from San Diego to Minneapolis last Wednesday.

To this point, what we know for sure is that one way or another the pilots became distracted. They bypassed Minneapolis and fell out of radio contact with air traffic control for nearly an hour. When the story first broke, the pilots had reportedly been involved in a heated discussion -- something about company policy -- that diverted their attention and caused them to bypass Minneapolis. A few days later the story changed. Now the pilots claim to have been working on their personal laptop computers, going over their schedules.

I'm the first to admit that it doesn't look good.

To start with, airline policies vary as to what pilots are or aren't allowed to do during the cruise portion of flight, but most carriers, Northwest included, prohibit the use of laptops and other forms of personal entertainment. Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration has revoked both pilots' airline transport licenses (they can later be eligible for reinstatement). Even still, how two pilots could have remained so distracted, for such a protracted length of time, is very difficult for me to understand.

Yes, the cockpit radios can sometimes remain quiet for long stretches, particularly when flying late at night or over remote areas. And yes, it is common for pilots to temporarily lose contact with ATC: We copy down the wrong frequency or mistakenly leave the volume down; we miss a handoff. But these are innocuous gaffes that generally resolve themselves after just a minute or two. For an hour to pass? On a short-haul domestic flight? Had they not noticed the absence of ATC? Were they not monitoring their position relative to the flight plan waypoints, right there on the plane's navigation screens?

Do airline pilots sometimes become distracted? Of course they do, just as any professional in any line of work occasionally becomes distracted, even in the middle of important duties. There is no such thing as a perfect flight; pilots make minor mistakes just like anybody else. But this was something different.

Just the same, I am more than a bit dismayed by the intense media focus on this story. There was no catastrophe. There was no near catastrophe. The plane was temporarily off-course during high-altitude cruise flight, under ATC watch above non-mountainous terrain. The crew made an embarrassing mistake, and will be punished accordingly, while the rest of us who fly for a living will draw important if obvious lessons. It was a comparatively minor event that has received far more attention than it deserves. I've been astounded by the level of traction. A week later and it's still above the fold. Reporters and pundits have been digging and digging for some nonexistent deeper meaning, asking if perhaps the event was a symptom of a frightening breakdown in air safety. One radio station even asked me if I thought the incident was related to "pilot stress" brought on by Northwest's ongoing merger with Delta.

No, I don't. I think it was what it was: a freak event.

Red herrings everywhere. I appeared on a talk show the other night with an aeronautics professor who began talking about cockpit automation, and how the downside of the high-tech flight deck is the propensity for pilots to grow bored. Modern avionics, she insinuated, were making this sort of incident more likely. Bollocks. Boredom and automation have little to do with one another. Boredom was a factor 60 years ago, when planes had rudimentary autopilots and propellers spun by pistons. It's going to be a factor in any profession where the bulk of tasks becomes repetitive and routine. We don't know exactly what happened over Minneapolis, but the fancy electronics of the Airbus A320 weren't the problem, trust me.

I operate eight-, nine-, even 12-hour nonstops all the time. There's a certain tedium that I expect and have to deal with. But is it because of the automation? No. If I had to have my hands on the wheel that whole time, I'd be twice as bored and 10 times as exhausted. And on the whole, Minneapolis notwithstanding, pilots are pretty good at the kind of self-discipline it requires to be alert for long periods of low workload. It's part of the job. (What's the best method for combating boredom? One word: conversation.)

Contrary to what people think, both boredom and fatigue (we'll get to the latter in a moment) are often easier to manage on long-haul flights than on shorter ones. Most flights over eight hours long carry augmented crews, allowing pilots to take organized rest breaks in a bunk room or designated crew seat. On a 12-hour nonstop from New York to Tel Aviv, a pilot will spend no more than three or four consecutive hours at a control seat, versus six hours on a trip between New York and San Francisco.

And the cockpit can be a busier place than you might imagine, even late at night over the middle of the ocean: There are ATC and company position reports to transmit and record, weather reports to check, arrival procedures to review and plan, aircraft systems to monitor, logbook issues to take care of, and so on.

On Wednesday, CNN ran a story about pilots becoming bored. It included the following:

When cruising over great distances, "it's very easy to be distracted because there's not a whole lot going on," said Emilio Corsetti, a 30-year commercial pilot with American Airlines who has written numerous magazine articles about aviation. An airliner's entire flight can be programmed; once that program is activated, "the plane will fly to its destination without any input from the pilot at all," he said.

When I read that, I thought my head was going to explode. Rarely have I come across a more misleading statement in the mainstream media when it comes to flying. This is arguably the most grotesque caricature of cockpit automation I have ever encountered, and any pilot who reads this ought to be fuming.

Corsetti is talking about the programming of general flight plan data into the flight management system -- the basic, repeat basic, profile of a flight. A jetliner can, in theory, take itself laterally from waypoint to waypoint along a preprogrammed route. But the idea that a jet "will fly to its destination without any input from the pilot at all" is absolutely preposterous and downright offensive to anybody who flies for a living. There are so many myths out there when it comes to cockpit automation, and pilots are often their own worst enemies, grossly oversimplifying things in an eagerness to boast of the various technologies at their disposal. I've said it before, and I will say it again: Automation helps a pilot in the same way that it helps a surgeon. It makes flying easier, but it does not make it easy. Even the most routine and "automated" flight remains subject to countless contingencies and a tremendous amount of input from the crew. Yes, tremendous.

Also, please ignore the media's harping on the fact that the Northwest pilots reportedly were not wearing headsets at the time. It is perfectly normal for pilots not to wear headsets during the cruise portion of the flight. They'll use a hand-microphone for making transmissions, while listening over the flight deck speakers.

Meanwhile, not everybody is buying the laptop excuse, theorizing instead that both the captain and first officer had fallen asleep. Thus, whatever the actual cause or causes, the incident has ignited a conversation about the problem of pilot fatigue, similar to what transpired in the aftermath of a Colgan Air (Continental Connection) crash near Buffalo last February. Unlike other aspects of this story, this is a conversation worth having.

Pilot fatigue, explored in this column previously, has been a long-simmering issue that regulators have yet to become aggressive with. There's little I can say on the topic that I haven't said before. Neither is it unprecedented for one or more crew members to have inadvertently nodded off.

Last year, the pilots of a Go airlines regional jet fell asleep over Hawaii, overshooting their destination by 15 miles. The same thing happened last June on an Air India jet headed from Jaipur to Mumbai. The plane continued past Mumbai for more than 300 miles before the crew woke up and turned back. The National Transportation Safety Board has cited fatigue as a likely contributing factor in several accidents, including the 1999 fatal crash of American Airlines Flight 1420, at Little Rock, Ark. Two fatal crashes involving cargo jets -- one at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the other in Kansas City -- were blamed more directly on air-crew tiredness.

Signs of a crisis? No, and the fact that every week in America more than a hundred thousand commercial airline flights operate safely and without incident underscores this. What happened above Minneapolis was, if nothing else, a freak occurrence. For the record, I've been flying commercially since 1990 and I have never been in a cockpit where anything like this has happened. Neither am I aware of any colleagues who've experienced such an incident. But the menace of fatigue is out there, its effects very subtle and difficult to quantify. Such a high level of safety and reliability is perhaps less an indicator that all is running smoothly than evidence of skilled and dedicated pilots operating admirably under tough conditions. As one crash forensics expert I spoke with put it: "Indicators that a safety problem exists are seen in the number of events, not the number of non-events. And unfortunately, the actual number of events is not known to the public, or, worse, to investigators, because only the highly irregular ones are noted. That the Northwest event seems isolated doesn't mean that it is."

What's unusual about Minneapolis is that it involved a major carrier. Contrary to conventional wisdom, fatigue is considerably more prevalent at the commuter and regional airline level than at the majors. Everybody's physiology is different, but my own experiences bear this out: I have flown intercontinental long-haul, domestic mainline, back-of-the-clock cargo and short-haul regional. It's intuitive, I suppose, to associate long-haul flying with fatigue, but in many ways it's the easiest form of flying out there. Indeed, the circadian scramble of a 10-, 12- or 15-hour nonstop is something to reckon with, but these flights carry augmented crews with organized rest breaks; layovers are long and comfortable, the workload comparatively light. In the regional theater, on the other hand, pilots fly multiple daily legs in and out of busy airports, into the teeth of bad weather and heavy traffic, making quick turnarounds and/or sitting out long delays. After eight or nine hours at the Holiday Inn Express, it's time to do it all again.

As I advocated in this space a few months ago, the most productive step that regulators can take is adjusting the definition of what it considers "rest." As it stands today, a pilot is considered off duty and on "rest" anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes after his final flight of the day shuts down at the gate. With paperwork and other duties to attend to, the pilot's rest clock often begins ticking while he is still at the airport -- sometimes still on the plane! And, the next morning, it ends not in the hotel lobby, but back at the airport at the moment of sign-in. Once you account for transit time to and from the hotel, time for eating, etc., what exists on paper as a 10-hour rest period might only include five or six hours of actual sleep. In fairness to a pilot and his passengers, the rest clock should not begin to tick until the minute he latches the door of his hotel room, and stop ticking no later than the minute he checks out.

Will this happen? I doubt it. For one thing it brings ambiguity into how long a layover will actually last, and that is very difficult for airlines (and their customers) to work with.

I also advocate that pilots be allowed supervised cockpit naps (one at a time, obviously), as is permitted by regulations in Canada and other countries. The idea is seen as radioactive by the FAA, unfortunately, and to this point has been kept off the table.

Thanks in part to collective bargaining agreements, airline rest rules often surpass the more skeletal federal regulations. But again this is primarily at the larger network carriers. As a rule, in-house policies at the regionals aren't nearly as protective.

For additional background on pilot fatigue and rest, click here.

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And with that, I need to cut things short this week due to some unfortunate news.

Last Thursday night, while I was at work on an earlier draft of this very column, my mother suffered a brain aneurism and cardiac arrest at her home in Revere, Mass. She passed away the next day at age 65. If I've been tardy at answering your mail, or if this article feels a little scattershot or abbreviated, this is the reason.

In the mid-1960s, before I was born, my mother was a flight attendant for American Airlines. Those were still the glamour days of commercial aviation, and becoming a flight attendant still held a certain cachet -- so much so that when she graduated from training in April 1965, she got her picture in the local newspaper. You can see it here. Note the reference to "Astrojets" -- American's nickname for its early Boeings.

I remember her stories of Lockheed Electras and 707s and how excited people used to be as they stepped on board.

Sorry, did I say "flight attendant"? I definitely meant stewardess. I don't think the term "flight attendant" even existed yet. When, in 2007, I wrote a column about flight attendants and dared to recycle the politically incorrect S-word, I was hit with a hailstorm of angry protest from readers. "Tell them to shove it," was my mother's response.

I have a copy of her acceptance letter, dated Nov. 21, 1964, inviting her to the American Airlines Stewardess College, training grounds of "the finest Stewardess Corps in the air."

She flew only for a year or two, but eventually went back to the airlines in 1979, when I was in junior high, this time as a counter agent for Northwest. It happened mostly at my urging: I wanted the free tickets and backstage access to planes. She did airport counter, gate agent, then the city ticket office (back when airlines had such things) and cargo sales before retiring about 10 years ago.

In the early 1980s we took many family trips using her employee passes. Deregulation was yet to take its toll: I remember fancy first-class omelets and champagne -- on domestic flights! I remember non-revving to Florida -- Orlando! -- dressed in a jacket and tie. Most memorable was a vacation in Israel in 1981, after she'd scored some freebies from a friend at El Al. That was my first time outside the United States, and my first-ever ride on a 747.

Mom also made a cameo in this 2006 column, discussing the dangers of frozen tomato sauce with a Transportation Security Administration guard.

She was the one who broke the news to me about last week's Northwest fiasco with a phone call, about an hour before she collapsed. She had a love/hate relationship with her former employer and was obviously getting a kick out of the news. "Don't you guys have maps?"

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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