On August 7, 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board issued Safety Recommendations A-09-61 through -66 addressing pilot fatigue and sleep apnea. The Recommendations were prompted, in part, by the February 13, 2008 go! flight 1002 incident in which the flight crew fell asleep and flew past their destination. The NTSB determined that that the probable cause of the incident was the captain and first officer inadvertently falling asleep during the cruise phase of flight with the captain’s undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea and the flight crew’s early-morning start times as contributing factors. The NTSB recommends that the FAA take the following action to address/deal with the issues of pilot fatigue in short-haul operations and sleep apnea:
Modify the Application for Airman Medical Certificate to elicit specific information about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea and about the presence of specific risk factors for that disorder. (A-09-61)
Implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea and require that those pilots provide evidence through the medical certification process of having been appropriately evaluated and, if treatment is needed, effectively treated for that disorder before being granted unrestricted medical certification. (A-09-62)
Develop and disseminate guidance for pilots, employers, and physicians regarding the identification and treatment of individuals at high risk of obstructive sleep apnea, emphasizing that pilots who have obstructive sleep apnea that is effectively treated are routinely approved for continued medical certification. (A-09-63)
Conduct research examining how pilot fatigue is affected by the unique characteristics of short-haul operations and identify methods for reducing those effects; include research into the interactive effects of shift timing, consecutive days of work, number of legs flown, and the availability of rest breaks. (A-09-64)
Issue interim guidance, such as an advisory circular, that provides operators of multisegment, short-haul flights with the relevant safety information as it becomes available during the research requested in Safety Recommendation A-09-64. (A-09-65)
When the research requested in Safety Recommendation A-09-64 is completed, require operators of short-haul, multisegment flights to incorporate the guidance requested in Safety Recommendation A-09-65 into their operating specifications to reflect the unique crew fatigue characteristics of these operators. (A-09-66)
Keep in mind that the FAA is not obligated to comply with or implement the NTSB’s recommendations. Indeed, as the NTSB frequently points out, the FAA is very slow to implement the NTSB’s recommendations, if it does so at all.
However, given the current public spotlight on the issue of pilot fatigue, I won’t be surprised if the FAA takes some action. Those pilots who snore, or are overweight, or have high blood pressure, or have any of the other “risk factors” associated with sleep apnea, beware! This sleeping disorder is on the radar screen and will likely be the cause of additional frustration for airmen seeking medical certificates.