Pilots Getting a Buzz

Recently the world of Aviation has been flooded with criticism of the Federal Aviation Administration's update of regulations regarding the crew rest period. Highlights of the new regulations state that all airline pilots get at least 10 hours of rest between shifts, eight hours of which must involve uninterrupted sleep. Depending on when the flight begins, pilots are also limited to spending only eight or nine hours in the cockpit.

These stricter regulations come as no surprise to many airlines, as incident reports stating "pilot fatigue" as a main contributing factor became too frequent to ignore. To quote the FAA’s Official Report on the amendment: “Fatigue manifests in the aviation context not only when pilots fall asleep in the cockpit in flight, but perhaps more importantly, when they are insufficiently alert during take-off and landing. Reported fatigue-related events have included procedural errors, unstable approaches, lining up with the wrong runway, and landing without clearances. ”

As most pilots know, human error is the #1 cause of aviation accidents. Add in fatigue and stress from a long flight and you have a recipe for disaster. These new regulations will assure pilots rest as much as needed before beginning a long period of flight.

One additional facet of this change is that more responsibility has been given directly to pilots in determining their fitness for flight. They must confirm that they are fit for duty before any flight operations, and may be removed from the flight should they display signs of fatigue.

It will be interesting to see how this has an effect on the daily consumption of certain stimulants, namely caffeine. Pilots are no strangers to a good cup of coffee, which many drink as a delicious energizer before flights. The short-term effects of caffeine can be great for feeling alert and awake, but these benefits wear off quickly and can put a pilot in danger.

Caffeine has been linked to such symptoms as anxiety, fear, sweating, irritability, nervousness, and feeling “on edge.” These are perhaps the worst feelings for a pilot to have during a complicated flight. Should they not feel these symptoms, they are still likely to suffer from insomnia and have a difficult time managing their rest period. Caffeine effectively blocks the chemicals in the brain which tell you that you are tired, causing the brain to be exhausted but unable to rest and recuperate.

The best thing for pilots to do is to only drink coffee or caffeinated drinks in moderation, monitoring caffeine consumption to assure the safety of their flight operations. Living a healthy lifestyle and eating foods rich in protein will also help give a natural “boost” without paying the price of negative symptoms.