FAA studies and personal testimony reveal risks posed by fatigue, reliance on sleeping pills.
Henry Lund was beat after a long day as a flight attendant when he arrived at his Anchorage hotel desperate to sleep before a 4 a.m. wake-up call for the trip back to Minneapolis-St. Paul. He remembers taking a sleeping pill — maybe two.
The return trip last summer would end his long career at Delta and Northwest airlines.
Lund, 49, says he has no memory of the incident that got him fired: shoving and berating another flight attendant.
His experience illustrates a broader problem for the nation’s flight attendants. While they share responsibility with pilots for passenger safety, they work with less rest than foreign flight attendants and can rely more on sleeping pills than can pilots.
Flight attendants exhausted from long hours and little rest have forgotten to engage or disarm emergency chutes, failed to properly stow baggage and carry out other safety duties. The federal government says the risk of mishaps may have increased as airlines cut rest periods to save money.
“They’re showing up to work impaired,” said Peter Roma, a researcher who helped conduct studies for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on sleep deprivation and fatigue among flight attendants.
The hazards of fatigue appear in flight attendants’ own words in dozens of voluntary reports to the FAA.
“If there were an evacuation, I doubted my abilities,” wrote one about the impact of working 12 hours without a break. “I also felt like an endangerment to my passengers.”
Another injured a foot after she was struck by full coffee pots she forgot to secure. “This occurred because I was very tired,” the flight attendant wrote. “I did not sleep well the night prior … constantly watching the clock in anticipation of my early wake-up call.”
“None of us [was] alert enough to have been able to efficiently respond to an aircraft emergency,” said another.
‘Not just cocktail waitresses’
There has been plenty of concern about tired pilots. The FAA in 2011 toughened its rules for pilot rest after safety investigators determined that pilots in the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in upstate New York were likely impaired by fatigue.
The FAA set a minimum 10-hour rest period for pilots prior to duty, effective next January.
But the government has paid less attention to flight attendants, even though the FAA calls them “safety professionals” and the first line of defense in an emergency.
“These are not just cocktail waitresses, for God’s sakes,” said Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and former chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who is a transportation consultant in Washington, D.C. “If the flight attendant has to get you out of that plane in 90 seconds, they have to be alert, at their top performance, they can’t be run down.”
One aviation expert thinks the government should make flight attendant rest requirements more like those of pilots.
“Why would we not want to keep fatigue managed to the same degree?” asked John Cox, a longtime airline pilot and CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation safety consultancy. “The stresses are different, but the days are equally long or longer.”
In Minneapolis, rest times for many former Northwest Airlines flight attendants shortened after the company was acquired by Delta and their union contract expired. “Our duty days have gotten two to three hours longer in a lot of cases,” said flight attendant Julianna Helminski.