|Quoting AirportSeven (Reply 1):
FAR Part 121 lists all of the duty time limitations for pilots and mechanics in the United States.
The problem is that the FAA can mandate a required rest period for flight crews, but they can't force flight crews to actually sleep during the mandated rest period. It's the same with controllers. It's up to the individual to get enough rest to be mentally focused enough to execute their duties.
The problem with these rest requirements is that they are totally inadequate for how airlines operate now versus when they were first written. I am legally allowed to get as little as 8 hours "rest" between duty periods. But, due to how the rules are written, my rest starts 15 minutes after the door opens (usually I'm still on the airplane by this point) and starts 30 minutes before the door closes in the morning (am already onboard getting it ready by then).
So thats 8 hours from leaving the airplane to being back on the airplane. In that 8 hours I have to get transported to and from the airport (up to 30 minutes each way), I have to go through security, if its a Canada layover (which we do many of) I have to go through customs, I have to eat dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning, I have to shower, get dressed, unpack and pack my things, and so on and so on. Then I have to fall asleep in an unfamiliar hotel room / unfamiliar bed. As you can see, those 8 hours of "rest" get eaten away by a lot of things that have nothing to do with sleeping very quickly. I usually subtract 4 hours from how much rest I'm allotted to how much sleep I can expect... so, for that 8 hour rest period, I'm expecting about 4 hours of sleep.
Additionally, there is nothing that says when this 8 hour rest period has to occur. There have been times where one day my rest period has been normal at night and the following day, my rest period has been from 10am to 8pm and then expected to be on duty 8pm to 9am the following morning. That is a complete night and day shift in when I am supposed to "rest" in the course of one day. So even if you did have an adequate rest period scheduled, say.. 12 hours, there is no guarentee that it matches up with your internal clock and you're going to be able to get any worthwhile sleep.
I just checked my next trip, during the whole trip, my shortest duty day is 12h43m and my longest rest period during the whole trip is 10h17m. So, the absolute shortest day I will work will be a nearly 13 hour day (163% longer than a normal 8 hour work day) with 5 legs and it will be preceeded by 4 hours of sleep and followed by my "long" overnight where I will expect about 6 hours. I'm scheduled to fly 27.8 hours and 18 legs in a 3.5 day period.
If you had any idea of the number of mistakes make in cockpits across the country every day due to sleep deprivation, you and the rest of the general public would be horrified. They happen many times on every single flight, every single day. Luckily our system is built with a very large amount of checks and balances... we have lots of people and lots of systems all watching over the flight making sure things are going properly, and 99.9% of the time, something catches the error and it is corrected, but it is very unnerving that the errors occur in the first place.
Sadly, in the airline industry, time is money, and crews "resting" takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. The airlines are able to lobby the FAA to keep things the way they are... fatigue usually gets swept under the carpet in crash investigations....a great deal of crashes, I believe, would've been prevented if the crews were not fatigued but were caused by something else.... ie: the crew probably could've reacted to the emergency better if they were rested and handled it better or not let things get out of hand.
I am a big proponent of getting more rest. It is not out of personal desire, but pure necessity for safety and my own body's sake (this has got to be one of the reason airline pilots have a short life expectancy). The FAA isn't going to do anything about it, so I'm actively trying to get better than FAA required minimums written into our contract with our airline, but it is an uphill battle and probably will not be successful.
So, next time you get on an airplane, ask the crew how much sleep they got the night before and how long they've been on duty... Sorry for the long post, this is a big issue for me and, obviously, I have a lot to say about it.
[Edited 2007-02-23 18:05:36]