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India moves to tackle pilot fatigue


India’s aviation authority has revealed draft proposals that would allow pilots to take ‘controlled rest’ periods during long-haul flights with co-pilots taking control, in a bid to combat the dangerous problem of pilot fatigue. The Directorate General Civil Aviation (DGCA) suggested that a period of 40 minutes – effectively a nap time – should be introduced for pilots, followed by a 20 minute ‘re-orientation’ on longer duration flights. The hour of rest would serve to refresh the pilot and avoid any lapses of concentration or sudden sleep due to fatigue.

India is among the worst offenders for flight safety, and the particular issue of pilot fatigue has hit the headlines in the country and worldwide a number of times in recent years. Last month four Air India employees were formally suspended by authorities for an alleged incident in which attendants took the controls of a flight from Bangkok to Delhi to let the pilots sleep. While the airline denied that particular detail of the case it was admitted that the two pilots were ‘distracted’ and autopilot wasn't functional.

The timescales set out in the DGCA proposals are an interesting element of the story. The benefits of a ‘power nap’ are well-known in the high-pressure worlds of business and academia, and the concept – if safely introduced – could certainly deliver a much-needed boost for fatigued pilots. However, the ‘controlled’ duration of 40 minutes appears to be slightly too long for an effective nap as it risks sleep inertia. This occurs when the body is woken from a deep-sleep stage unnaturally, something that could happen 40 minutes into a sleep. While 'optimum' nap times do vary from person to person, a 20 minute sleep would be suitable in delivering a restful sleep without descending into deeper stages that aren't suitable for waking out of immediately. Experiencing sleep inertia after a poorly-timed nap can effectively negate any rejuvenating benefits that the nap might have had, as well as causing a knock-on effect for one’s ‘main’ sleep later in the night. This is almost acknowledged by the proposals inclusion of a ‘re-orientation’ period, which suggests a level of grogginess is to be expected. The neatness of the controlled rest being a full hour may be behind the timescales, rather than the complexities of sleep itself. 

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