Half of British pilots admit to falling asleep in cockpit

LONDON (REUTERS) - More than half of British airline pilots say they have fallen asleep in the cockpit, according to a survey ahead of an EU vote on flying hours a pilots' association says may compromise flight safety.

According to the British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa), 56 per cent of 500 commercial pilots admitted to being asleep while on the flight deck and, of those, nearly one in three said they had woken up to find their co-pilot also asleep.

Pilot exhaustion grabbed the headlines this week when a newspaper reported two pilots on a British long-haul flight fell asleep in the cockpit, leaving the packed jet travelling unsupervised on autopilot. The survey, released by Balpa, came ahead of a vote in the European Parliament on Monday on new rules that could replace British regulations.

Balpa, a trade union for pilots, voiced concerns that these proposed changes would water down British safety standards. The rule changes would mean that pilots could work a maximum of 110 hours in a two-week period, more than the 95-hour limit under British regulations, and at night could be expected to fly for up to 11 hours, against a current 10-hour limit.

"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," Balpa general-secretary Jim McAuslan said in a statement.

The proposals, devised by the European Aviation Safety Agency to harmonise the rules regarding pilots' hours across the European Union, would also mean they could be called to work at any time on their days off. Currently, restrictions are in place to help them plan their rest on days off.

The survey of pilots, by pollster ComRes, found 84 per cent of respondents believed their abilities had been compromised over the last six months by tiredness, with almost half saying pilot exhaustion was the biggest threat to flight safety.