Flight attendant fatigue poses safety risks

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

FAA studies and personal testimony reveal risks posed by fatigue, reliance on sleeping pills.

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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.

Photo: Helen L. Montoya • San Antonio Express-News,

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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.

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.

“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.

But others cite the FAA studies to argue that changes are needed for safety’s sake.

“As airlines restructure and cut corners to make ends meet, flight attendants are experiencing an industry trend that must be put to rest … forced to work to the point of exhaustion,” said the Association of Flight Attendants. “Reaction time and performance diminishes with extreme fatigue — an unacceptable situation for safety-sensitive employees.”

 

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

 

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