Study uncovers some factors that might affect the amount and quality of airline pilots’ in-flight sleep

New research in PLOS One sheds light on how airline pilots use in-flight sleep to manage fatigue on long-haul flights. The study indicates that many pilots try to prepare their body for sleep before the trip even begins.

The new study examined qualitative feedback from pilots, which had been collected during previous studies on their sleep and performance. In particular, the previous studies surveyed pilots regarding their sleep at home, in-flight sleep, fatigue and performance on specific flight routes.

The surveys provided space for participants to comment at the end of the questionnaire, which is what the current study is based on.

“As I merged data from multiple studies into a larger database, I noticed that the pilots’ comments had information in them that wasn’t being captured in the scales and closed answer questions we were asking pilots to complete for our studies,” explained study author Jennifer Zaslona, a research officer at the Sleep/Wake Research Centre at Massey University.

“We talk about shared responsibility for managing fatigue but we were focusing on what we could measure and forgetting to listen to the people being impacted by our recommendations. To me, it seemed that we were missing part of the picture.”

After systematically coding comments from 123 airline pilots, the researchers found that several common themes emerged. For example, many pilots noted that the design and location of the crew rest facility could adversely affect in-flight sleep.

“On long range (>8hrs) and ultra-long range (> 16hrs) flights, in-flight sleep is one of the main methods recommended to manage pilots’ fatigue and sleepiness. This means that on long flights pilots are provided with crew rest facilities which can range from an economy class seat to a separate lie-flat bunk area depending on the flight,” Zaslona told PsyPost.

“Pilots in our study made good use of their in-flight sleep opportunities (as recommended) and unsurprisingly they preferred the crew bunk area to the seat in the passenger cabin. However, they also highlighted ways in which the comfort of the crew bunk can be improved, for instance by reducing noise disturbances or providing softer mattresses.”

As one pilot said, sleeping in the crew bunk area was “like sleeping on a well-padded carpet over hard floor.”

Many pilots also said that they tried to prepare themselves before the flight, either by sleeping in on the day of their trip to get more rest before the flight or by increasing their time awake prior to their trip so they would have an easier time falling asleep in flight.

“Importantly, they indicated that their fatigue management on these flights actually starts before the flight with how they prepare for the flight. There were different strategies of flight preparation but pilots indicated that it is helpful for them to know ahead of time which rest breaks they will be allocated in flight so that they can better prepare for the flight,” Zaslona said.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One of the main limitations of this study is that the questions from which we drew this data weren’t designed to be the primary outcomes of the study, so the amount of information provided by each pilot is more limited than if we had conducted interviews or focus groups,” Zaslona said.

“For example, the data doesn’t address pilots’ views on collaboration and communication with superiors and airlines in relation to fatigue risk management. It is also difficult to assess how representative of the general pilot population our sample is because the studies from which we drew our data were more of a snapshot of the operation during a specific period of time.”

“There are still many questions to answer especially relating to flight preparation and rest break allocation. Owing to the variety in long haul flight operations it is unlikely that there would be a simple answer to these questions but perhaps we can start to identify different strategies that can be used in specific contexts,” Zaslona explained.

“Traditionally, regulatory bodies have set hard limits on flight durations but with newer technologies aircraft can fly longer and further so there has been a shift towards using Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMSs),” she added.

“An FRMS provides an airline with more flexibility, allowing them to operate outside the prescribed limits, provided that they are monitoring and managing fatigue risk in their operations. But an FRMS also relies on all parties (regulators, airlines and pilots) doing their part to manage the risk of fatigue because fatigue is a whole of life issue, meaning fatigue is impacted by your work but also by what you do outside of work.”

The study, “Shared responsibility for managing fatigue: Hearing the pilots“, was authored by Jennifer L. Zaslona, Karyn M. O’Keeffe, T. Leigh Signal, and Philippa H. Gander.