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Tired, Sleepless, And Antidepressant Medicated Pilots Spell Human Error Disasters?


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Tired, Sleepless, And Antidepressant Medicated Pilots Spell Human Error Disasters?

Monday marked the first day of the newly revised FAA policy allowing pilots who use antidepressant medications to legally fly the skies. Our sleepless and tired pilots are constantly stressed by their long hours and the constant interruptions of their sleep cycles due to time zone changes. Some of those pilots will now add the effects of antidepressant medications to the list of factors that can affect their abilities to react to unexpected challenges in flight. Will the new policy spell an increase in the number of human error caused disasters?

Greg Griffin in an article in the Denver Post asserts, “Human error factors were cited as the primary problem in 74 commercial aviation safety incidents reported at Denver International Airport since 2005, according to a NASA database of voluntary, anonymous reports from pilots and others.” A joint report from the FAA and the aviation industry concluded that, “loss of control accidents – in which the crew was unable to recover from an unexpected event such as engine failure or a stall – accounted for 42 percent of commercial aviation fatalities worldwide from 1999 through 2008, more than any other cause.” Human factors such as sleep deprivation, mental distractions, scheduling, and training are all contributing factors. The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority reported last year that “flight crews were the primary cause of two-thirds of fatal commercial and business plane crashes worldwide from 1997 through 2006.” Our own FAA found in a 2006 study that “from 1990 to 2002, 45 percent of major airline accidents in the United States and 75 percent of commuter-carrier crashes were associated with human error.”

The February 2009 crash of Colgan Air’s Flight 3407 in Buffalo NY, killing 50 people, was attributed to fatigue, training, and pay. The NTSB attributed most of the blame to the lack of proper simulator training. The lack of proper simulator training also was a factor in the 2001 crash of an American Airlines A300-600 that killed 265 people.

An October 2009 Delta Airlines plane with 182 passengers landed safely on a taxiway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. The FAA is still investigating this case where fatigue from a ten hour flight and the distraction of a medical emergency on board could have caused the serious error.

The Northwest Airlines A320 overshot runway incident in October 2009 at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport has been attributed to distraction, but sleeping on board was also suggested. The pilot and copilot claimed they were busy on their laptops, but air traffic controllers were not able to contact the plane for an hour and eighteen minutes. The plane had been at risk of being shot down by fighter planes dispatched in a concern over a possible high jacking.

With all of these stats supporting the conclusion that most airline disasters are caused by human error, it seems incomprehensible that the FAA would add the side effects of antidepressants to the already growing problems of fatigue, stress, and sleep deprivation. The dangerous side effects of antidepressant prescriptions are well documented. The dangers disclosed on the labels of Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro are enough to stoke fears in the most confident air travelers. Randy Babbitt, FAA Administrator, responsible for the change reversing policy in effect for more than 70 years, chooses “culture change” and a new, more tolerant view of those affected by depression over and above the public safety he is charged to protect. How many lost lives in future disasters will be required before we return to time tested policy?    

Recently retired after almost twenty years in the retail mattress world, I finally have the time for my passions: my family, reading, research, and writing. My new book, “Shop for Sleep and Survive the Bite” is now available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book retailing sites. I enjoy blogging and Sleeplessandtired.com takes up much of my time. Topics are usually sleep related although I do venture off into humor, satire, and current events. Many of my articles have been published on the web. The ultimate goal is to continue my career of assisting the consumer in his quest for the “treasure” of a “good night’s rest.”


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