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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

“You have to try to make yourself fall asleep,” he said. “It’s bright in the middle of summer in Alaska. You’ve been flying all day, you’re tired, but you can’t fall asleep.”

The FDA label also says sleep driving and sleep sex have been reported, and that alcohol can make Ambien’s side effects worse. “Patients usually do not remember these events,” the agency says.

A flight attendant for a major carrier told the Star Tribune that she remembers taking Ambien and drinking wine on an off-duty flight, but not what happened next.

“I tried to take off my clothes and stand on a seat,” the attendant said she was later told. She asked that her name be withheld for fear of losing her job.

Exhaustion and tragedy

Julie Bronson’s account of exhaustion and Ambien persuaded a jury to show her leniency.

Bronson grew up in Minneapolis and worked 18 years as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines and Delta, earning kudos for her work.

But in 2012 she pleaded guilty to intoxication assault for injuring a child in a driving accident she says she doesn’t remember. It occurred two days after she returned to her San Antonio home after a series of flights to and from India that left her unable to sleep.

“I still was on Indian time,” she testified. “I was exhausted.”

To force sleep, Bronson testified she took two Ambiens, drank five or six glasses of wine in three hours, and then crawled into bed at 7 p.m. on April 23, 2009. She woke up several hours later in jail.

“I’m laying on this cold cement floor with cuffs on my legs,” she testified. “I said, ‘Why am I here? What did I do?’ ”

Bronson had driven around San Antonio before jumping a curb and plowing into a family. Her lawyer blamed her uncharacteristic behavior on Ambien. A jury recommended probation without jail time. A judge sentenced her to six months in jail and she was released in January. She no longer works for Delta.

Relaxed rules

Most other nations require more rest for flight attendants, the FAA reported.

“When comparing the United States maximum hours of work and minimum hours of rest with other countries, we concluded that U.S. … rules are among the least restrictive, representing a greater than typical risk for fatigue-related incidents,” one FAA study concluded.

Minimum rest periods during layovers on international flights can be two hours shorter at Delta than they were at Northwest, where flight attendants had a union contract.

Roma, the FAA contractor who helped conduct the research, said longer rest periods for flight attendants are a simple fix and a tough sell.

“The flip side of it is paying for it,” Roma said.

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  • Former flight attendant Julie Bronson testified on May 14, 2012, in San Antonio, Texas. She pleaded guilty to intoxicated assault for injuring a child in a driving accident she says she doesn’t remember.

  • Henry Lund, former flight attendant.

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