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Continued: Flight attendant fatigue poses safety risks

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 28, 2013 - 10:18 AM

The FAA typically requires at least nine hours rest, though it can be cut to eight hours on occasion.

The agency studies were conducted from 2008 through 2012 by its Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. Surveying thousands of flight attendants, they focused on sleep patterns of a representative 200 working domestic and international flights. They revealed that:

• U.S. flight attendants catch fewer than six hours sleep a day on average on domestic routes, and fewer than five hours sleep on international layovers.

• Sleep requirements declined during the recession. Airlines routinely scheduled flight crews “up to the regulation limits,” the FAA researchers wrote. The change “could increase the likelihood of … fatigue-related mishaps.”

• To cope with short rest, four of every 10 flight attendants studied relied on sleep aids of some kind during layovers.

Pill popping

The routine is familiar to an American Airlines flight attendant who flies between Miami, the Dominican Republic and Panama and says he often works 14-hour days with a 10-hour layover twice a week.

“By the time you close that door behind you at the hotel, it’s usually 9:30 or 10 o’clock,” he said, with a wake-up call at 6:30 the next morning.

“The first thing I do when I get to the hotel is take my Ambien because it takes a good hour to kick in,” he said, referring to one of the more popular prescription sleep aids. “I can’t sleep without it.”

On short sleep, he said he’ll sometimes fail to ensure that carry-ons are stowed in overhead bins. He asked for anonymity for fear that his airline would fire him.

Under FAA rules, airline pilots “are generally prohibited from using prescription or over-the-counter medications for sleep,” a spokesman said. But the government lets airlines decide rules on the use of sleep aids by flight attendants.

The trade group Airlines for America declined to comment, as did United and American airlines. Delta does not specifically restrict sleep aids but “we require … flight attendants to be free from any medication that impairs their ability to perform the safety duties of their job,” said spokeswoman Betsy Talton. “Employees are responsible for knowing how medication affects them.”

Aggression and blackouts

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration label warns that Ambien and other sleep aids with the ingredient Zolpidem have been linked to rare but “serious side effects” that include “more outgoing or aggressive behavior than normal, confusion, agitation.”

That described behavior attributed to Lund on his final flight from Anchorage to Minneapolis-St. Paul. A memo from his personnel file said other attendants and passengers saw Lund shoving a colleague during boarding and calling him a jerk.

Lund said that he didn’t recall pushing the colleague and that any problems were “Ambien induced,” wrote a supervisor. “He said if he woke up during the night, he would take one if he needed to go back to sleep.”

Lund’s reported behavior was out of character for the 14-year flight attendant, said Tim Oyler, a former Northwest manager who oversaw flight attendants. “He was known as an excellent flight attendant. ... I was shocked when I heard.”

In an interview, Lund said he took one or two Ambiens during a restless night.

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