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Open Access Flight Crew Alertness and Sleep Relative to Timing of In-Flight Rest Periods in Long-Haul Flights

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BACKGROUND: In-flight breaks are used during augmented long-haul flight operations, allowing pilots a sleep opportunity. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration duty and rest regulations restrict the pilot flying the landing to using the third rest break. It is unclear how effective these restrictions are on pilots ability to obtain sleep. We hypothesized there would be no difference in self-reported sleep, alertness, and fatigue between pilots taking the second vs. third rest breaks.

METHODS: Pilots flying augmented operations in two U.S.-based commercial airlines were eligible for the study. Volunteers completed a survey at top-of-descent (TOD), including self-reported in-flight sleep duration, and Samn-Perelli fatigue and Karolinska Sleepiness Scale ratings. We compared the second to third rest break using noninferiority analysis. The influence of time of day (home-base time; HBT) was evaluated in 4-h blocks using repeated measures ANOVA.

RESULTS: From 787 flights 500 pilots provided complete data. The second rest break was noninferior to the third break for self-reported sleep duration (1.5 0.7 h vs. 1.4 0.7 h), fatigue (2.0 1.0 vs. 2.9 1.3), and sleepiness (2.6 1.4 vs. 3.8 1.8) at TOD for landing pilots. Measures of sleep duration, fatigue, and sleepiness were influenced by HBT circadian time of day.

DISCUSSION: We conclude that self-reported in-flight sleep, fatigue, and sleepiness from landing pilots taking the second in-flight rest break are equivalent to or better than pilots taking the third break. Our findings support providing pilots with choice in taking the second or third in-flight rest break during augmented operations.

Gregory KB, Soriano-Smith RN, Lamp ACM, Hilditch CJ, Rempe MJ, Flynn-Evans EE, Belenky GL. Flight crew alertness and sleep relative to timing of in-flight rest periods in long-haul flights. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2021; 92(2):8391.

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Keywords: augmentation; circadian rhythm; in-flight sleep; rest break

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2021

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  • This journal (formerly Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine), representing the members of the Aerospace Medical Association, is published monthly for those interested in aerospace medicine and human performance. It is devoted to serving and supporting all who explore, travel, work, or live in hazardous environments ranging from beneath the sea to the outermost reaches of space. The original scientific articles in this journal provide the latest available information on investigations into such areas as changes in ambient pressure, motion sickness, increased or decreased gravitational forces, thermal stresses, vision, fatigue, circadian rhythms, psychological stress, artificial environments, predictors of success, health maintenance, human factors engineering, clinical care, and others. This journal also publishes notes on scientific news and technical items of interest to the general reader, and provides teaching material and reviews for health care professionals.

    To access volumes 74 through 85, please click here.
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