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Flying: Fears and fatigue

Tuesday, December 02, 2014 by Rhonda Locke

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, Pteromerhanophobia, or the fear of flying, is one of the 10 most common phobias. It has been estimated one in three people have this fear in varying degrees, and up to 50 per cent have experienced some related anxiety at least once before, during or after a plane flight.

The dangers of the road versus the air

It has been well documented large-scale aircraft accidents tend to produce an increase in the number of people suffering from this phobia. And, if people are scared of flying, they are more likely to travel by car. However, statistics prove it is far more dangerous to travel by car, which makes this fear somewhat ironic. According to data collected in the last decade, the lifetime odds of dying in a road accident in the US are one in 80. In contrast, the odds of dying in a plane crash are less than one in 55,000.

In the months following September 11, 2001, data from the US Department of Transportation showed an increase in the number of fatal road accidents compared to the same period in the previous year. This increase was attributed to more people driving because of their greater fear of flying, and with more people on the road, the number of consequential road fatalities increased. It’s a terrible tragedy when you consider they would have been far safer if they’d jumped on a plane, regardless of their anxiety.

There are a number of concerns linked with a flying phobia, which go beyond the fear of a plane crash. Undoubtedly, there is a certain vulnerability associated with travelling up in the clouds, but this can be reduced to a fear specifically associated with a dependence on technology and people. Of course, the people we depend on most in the air are the pilots flying these large aircraft.

It is quite extraordinary to think two people can be directly responsible for so many. In recent times, the health and awareness of pilots while flying has raised some concerns – especially after recent fatal plane crashes which have been attributed to fatigue. Long commute times before and after shifts, the nature of changing time zones and the resulting impact on an individual’s circadian rhythm and sleep patterns all contribute significantly to your ability to operate at maximum proficiency.  

Effects of fatigue on flying

To this end, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) is embarking on a study to evaluate pilot drowsiness. BALPA’s Flight Safety Department, led by Dr Rob Hunter, is heading up the study. Professor Philippe Cabon, University of Paris Descartes, Mark Corbett, a PhD student at Swinburne University, Australia and Optalert’s General Manager Scientific Research, Dr Andrew Tucker are all part of the research project with the aim of determining the following.

  1. “How tired is too tired?” in the piloting context (how drowsy is too drowsy to safely fly?)
  2. The dependence of the risk of involuntary sleep on the sleep state of the other pilot (i.e. in a two pilot crew, if one pilot voluntarily, or involuntarily falls asleep, how does this affect the risk of the other pilot involuntarily falling asleep?) and 
  3. The hazard of tired pilots driving home after long shifts.

BALPA has identified Optalert’s eagle PORTABLE product as the most suitable drowsiness detection system to be used in the trial. The eagle PORTABLE hardware consists of a pair of glasses worn by the pilot, with a small sensor which monitors reflected light from the upper eyelid during blinking. The measurements are then transmitted to a small smart-phone sized device which displays the pilot’s score using Optalert’s patented Johns Drowsiness Scale (JDS™). Measured on a scale between 1 and 10, the higher the number recorded on the JDS™, the greater the risk of drowsiness related errors. Scores above 5.0 are considered high risk, meaning the pilot would be at high risk of making an error when flying the plane or when commuting home.

The eagle PORTABLE’s software uses the distribution of the speed and acceleration of eyelid closure to score real-time drowsiness and allows the collection of recorded scores. Over the length of the study, pilots using this wearable technology will have their data collected and evaluated to determine the three key outcomes identified above.

The future of airline safety

The more information we have about the effects of fatigue on flying, the better for the industry. Given pilots have to face many challenges due to the nature of their job, it can only help them and improve the safety of crew and passengers to be informed of those at particular risk of a drowsy incident. The other upside is for people suffering from Pteromerhanophobia. Most treatments include providing knowledge about airline safety to the person with the phobia, to ensure they are better educated on the real risk they are facing. This study therefore can only have positive results for those suffering. Certainly the odds of a safe trip have proven much better in the air than on the road.

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