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Majority of pilots admit they have fallen asleep in the cockpit

Poll also finds 49 per cent of flight-deck crew believe tiredness to be biggest threat to safety

More than half of pilots have fallen asleep on the flight deck, according to a survey by pilots’ union Balpa.

The poll showed that of the 56 per cent who admitted nodding off, as many as 29 per cent said they awoke to find the other pilot asleep.

And of the 500 commercial pilots polled, 43 per cent said they believed their abilities had been compromised at least once a month in the last six months by tiredness, with 84 per cent saying it has been compromised at some stage during the past six months.

Also, 31 per cent did not believe their airline had a culture that lent itself to reporting tiredness concerns, with only half (51 per cent) saying they believed their airline chief executive would back them if they refused to fly because of tiredness. Unprompted, 49 per cent said pilot tiredness was the biggest threat to flight safety – three times more than any other threat.

The poll came after it was reported that both pilots on an Airbus passenger plane were asleep at the same time, with the UK-operated  aircraft flying on autopilot.

One of the pilots indicated in a report to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that the pair nodded off after both had only five hours sleep in the previous two nights.

Details of the incident, which  occurred on August 13, were obtained by a news agency which had asked for incidents of pilot fatigue.

A CAA spokesman said: “This was a serious incident but an isolated one. I think lessons will be learnt from this. We are circulating this report within the industry.

“We don’t know why the pilots had had so little sleep before this flight. They were taking it in turn to have rest periods, with the one always checking the autopilot and it looks as if both fell asleep at the same time.”

The news emerged ahead of a European Parliament vote on new EU rules on pilot flying hours next Monday.

Balpa believes the new regulations will cut UK safety standards. The union wants MEPs voting on  Monday to back a motion that would require the European Commission to withdraw its proposals and to  subject them to proper scientific and medical scrutiny.

Balpa general secretary Jim McAuslan said: “Making every flight a safe flight is the number one priority for British pilots who have helped  establish some of the highest safety standards in Europe.

“Tiredness is already a major  challenge for pilots who are deeply concerned that unscientific new EU rules will cut UK standards and lead to increased levels of tiredness,  which has been shown to be a major contributory factor in air accidents.”

A CAA spokesman said: “The new European rules will increase our oversight role of airline operators and place firm obligations on airlines to introduce comprehensive fatigue management policies and monitoring systems. This will maintain the UK’s current high safety levels and will increase safety levels in some other EU states.”