Impact of layover length on sleep, subjective fatigue levels, and sustained attention of long-haul airline pilots

Gregory D Roach, Renée M A Petrilli, Drew Dawson, Nicole Lamond
Chronobiology International 2012, 29 (5): 580-6
Long-haul airline pilots often experience elevated levels of fatigue due to extended work hours and circadian misalignment of sleep and wake periods. During long-haul trips, pilots are typically given 1-3 d off between flights (i.e., layover) to recover from, and prepare for, duty. Anecdotally, some pilots prefer long layovers because it maximizes the time available for recovery and preparation, but others prefer short layovers because it minimizes both the length of the trip, and the degree to which the body clock changes from "home time" to the layover time zone. The aim of this study was to examine the impact of layover length on the sleep, subjective fatigue levels, and capacity to sustain attention of long-haul pilots. Participants were 19 male pilots (10 Captains, 9 First Officers) working for an international airline. Data were collected during an 11- or 12-d international trip. The trips involved (i) 4 d at home prior to the trip; (ii) an eastward flight of 13.5 h across seven time zones; (iii) a layover of either 39 h (i.e., short, n = 9) or 62 h (i.e., long, n = 10); (iv) a return westward flight of 14.3 h across seven time zones; and (v) 4 d off at home after the trip. Sleep was recorded using a self-report sleep diary and wrist activity monitor; subjective fatigue level was measured using the Samn-Perelli Fatigue Checklist; and sustained attention was assessed using the psychomotor vigilance task for a personal digital assistant (PalmPVT). Mixed-model regression analyses were used to determine the effects of layover length (short, long) on the amount of sleep that pilots obtained during the trip, and on the pilots' subjective fatigue levels and capacity to sustain attention. There was no main effect of layover length on ground-based sleep or in-flight sleep, but pilots who had a short layover at the midpoint of their trip had higher subjective fatigue levels and poorer sustained attention than pilots who had a long layover. The results of this study indicate that a short layover during a long-haul trip does not substantially disrupt pilots' sleep, but it may result in elevated levels of fatigue during and after the trip. If short layovers are used, pilots should have a minimum of 4 d off to recover prior to their next long-haul trip.

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