Pilot Fatigue And "Crash Pads" Threaten Airline Safety

February 9, 2011 Updated Feb 9, 2011 at 3:13 PM EDT

By WKBW News


Pilot Fatigue And "Crash Pads" Threaten Airline Safety

February 9, 2011 Updated Feb 9, 2011 at 3:13 PM EDT


Despite denials from the airline industry, hundreds of pilots may report to duty every day after getting only a few hours of what fatigue experts call "destructive sleep" in crowded crew lounges and so-called "crash pads," an ABC News investigation has found. Widespread pilot fatigue is putting airline passengers at risk, say critics, and may already have cost lives.

Current and former pilots described missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep in mid-flight in the report to be broadcast tonight on World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline.

Former Continental Express pilot Josh Reikes says one captain warned him, "Don't you ever let me wake up and find you sleeping."

America's most famous pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, doubts he could have landed his stricken U.S. Airways jet safely in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard, if he had slept in a lounge or crash pad. "Had we been tired, had we not gotten sufficient rest the night before," said Sullenberger, "we could not have performed at the same level."

Undercover video taken inside the crew lounges by pilots was provided to ABC News contradicts what the FAA says it has been told about the use of crew lounges for overnight sleep.

"We're getting a different answer than you're getting, so somewhere there's a gap," FAA administrator Randy Babbitt told ABC News.

"Good sleeping occurs in a dark room, a quiet room, a room that's cool in temperature, and a room where there is no intrusive noise," said Dr. Martin Moore-Ede, a fatigue expert who consults for airlines, unions and the government. "That does not describe a crew lounge."

The report comes two years after the crash in Buffalo of Continental Connection flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, that killed 50 people. The pilot of the plane, who commuted to his Newark base from Florida, had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark airport, raising concerns about the role of fatigue with safety investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board. The co-pilot had commuted to work on overnight flights from Seattle and also tried to sleep in the crew lounge, unable to afford a hotel room.

"We did recognize that they were likely impaired by fatigue," says Deborah Hersmann, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB also found that 70 percent of the Colgan Air pilots based at Newark were commuters, many coming from long distances to work. Fully 20 percent commuted from more than 1,000 miles away.

Two years later, little seems to have changed, based on what ABC News found.

"I'm infuriated it hasn't changed," said John Kausner, who lost his 24-year-old daughter Elly in the flight 3407 crash. The families who lost loved ones were in Washington D.C. Tuesday to urge Congress and the FAA to act.

"If airlines know their pilot is traveling they should be responsible for giving proper rest the evening before," said Kausner. "They should be responsible for making sure their pilots are fresh. It's common sense."

The so-called "crash pads" can be found within blocks of most major airports, part of an underground world that is secret only to the public. Inside one crash pad near LaGuardia airport in New York, stacks of triple-decker bunk beds are crammed into a room. There are 28 beds in all in a three-story row home -- "hot bunks" that rent for $25 a night.

"That's who their pilot is going to be," said one current pilot flying for a regional airline who took undercover videos and photos from inside airport crew lounges in New York and Philadelphia. "Do they want a well-rested pilot when they take that 6 a.m. flight out of Washington D.C. or do you want a guy who just slept in the crew room?"

Photos and video provided to ABC News by concerned pilots show where many are getting their rest at base, often in expensive hub cities where hotels and apartments -- even crash pads -- are expensive.

While many seasoned pilots say they can commute responsibly, arriving at their base city the day of their trip, other less senior pilots told ABC News they simply can't always afford to commute safely and arrive rested and ready to go.

"I see no way in the world that you could ask someone to make less than $20,000 per year and afford an apartment or a home or nightly hotel rooms in a city like Newark," says Josh Verde, an airline pilot who quit his job at Express Jet last year. "There's just no way to do it."

Verde says the airlines know what's going on and understand it's an impossible request. "They just sort of say, you know, 'Figure it out.' " Airlines do provide hotel rooms during the middle of an actual trip, Verde says. But it's the night before the start of a trip that pilots are often scrambling for sleep.

The FAA's proposed rule-making on flight-time/duty-time will do some things to help tired pilots. The rules will increase the mandatory rest period pilots, currently 8 hours, and decrease the maximum length of a pilot's work day, which is currently 16 hours. But in some cases, the number of hours a pilot can fly each day could increase.

Congress passed a law last August requiring that the FAA address pilot fatigue, among other safety issues raised by the Colgan crash by an August 2011 deadline. But the law does not require the FAA to address the issue of "commuting," or of sleeping arrangements for airline crews. Instead. it calls for a study by the National Academy of Sciences, to be completed this summer.

Neither the pilots union nor the airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, would sit down with ABC News for a report on fatigue and commuting pilots.

In a statement from the Airline Pilots Association, the country's largest pilot union, they said: "Thank you for requesting an interview with ALPA on the issue of pilot fatigue. Unfortunately, we do not have anyone available at this time," wrote Linda Shotwell, head of ALPA communications.

Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter Lorin, 30, in the Buffalo accident, says something needs to be done to fix this impasse. "It's a horrible situation for pilots. These two areas, pilots and industry need to work closer together. And if they can't get that done, then it's up to our government to step in and intercede and make something happen."