Napping, sex, and abstinence.

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 26 2009 7:42 AM

Nod Is My Co-Pilot

Napping, sex, and abstinence.

Isn't it nice to close your eyes and catch a little snooze while flying? You can lean back, relax, and nod off, knowing that the trusty flight crew will take you safely home.

In fact, it's so nice that the flight crew may be snoozing, too.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The latest suspects are the pilots of Northwest Airlines Flight 188, who flew 150 miles past Minneapolis last week while ignoring queries from air traffic controllers and fellow pilots for more than an hour. They claim they were awake. We'll see. But in general, sleep happens. "Pilots on occasion do take controlled naps," an aviation consultant and retired pilot tells Los Angeles Times reporter Hugo Martin.

Northwest Airlines. Click image to expand.
Northwest Airlines

Martin details several known incidents. In 1998, an entire three-person crew fell asleep while flying a 747 across the Pacific. Six years later, another pilot admitted that he and his first officer had nodded off while flying from Baltimore to Denver. This year, two pilots fell asleep over Hawaii, and one of them admitted to taking regular planned naps while in flight.

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Scary, eh? Of course, the Hawaii crew was fired. And thank goodness the FAA bans napping in the cockpit. We can't have pilots snoozing.

But wait a minute. When exactly are these folks supposed to sleep?

A spokesman for Allied Pilots Association says flight crews are falling asleep because airlines, under financial pressure, are pushing them to work as many hours as the law allows. "We have trips now that have five legs a day for several days in a row," he tells Martin. The law requires rest periods between eight-hour flying stints, but pilots say airlines are counting driving time between flights as rest time.

Which brings me to sex.

I know: Not everything is about sex. But bear with me.

When I was in college, I loved studying philosophy. If I were put in charge of a philosophy class for a day, I'd break the students into groups of three and give them the following problem to work out: Which is more important—food, sleep, or sex?

The exercise is really about what "important" means. But my instinct is to go with sleep, on the grounds that if you try to avoid all three, sleep is the one that will overtake you first. By that standard, it's the one you need most.

If that's true—and if we know that it's unreasonable and dangerous to insist that people abstain from sex—then isn't it stupid to expect them to abstain from sleep?

When it comes to sex, most of us understand that we can't defeat nature. Today's teenagers may be emotionally unprepared for sex, but they'll do it anyway, just as we did. If we deny them any outlet, they'll just do it in secret and without protection.

Most of us have come to a similar understanding about food. If you try too hard to deny your body's urges, you'll end up cheating, bingeing, and eating junk.

Why not extend this practicality to sleep? If we work pilots around the clock and count their commutes as rest time, we shouldn't be surprised that they fall asleep in the cockpit.

And if cockpit sleep is going to happen anyway, like dessert and teen sex, then maybe we should manage it instead of forbidding it. Martin points out that several airline executives have offered to endorse "controlled cockpit napping" on long domestic flights. This practice, currently allowed only on international journeys, involves multiple pilots sleeping in shifts so that somebody is always awake at the controls.

One pilot tells Martin he doesn't like this idea. "You have one guy falling asleep and now you are relying on the other guy to stay awake," he argues. "It's a safety issue."

Maybe so. But for my money, the surest way to prevent both pilots from sleeping simultaneously is to make sure at least one of them is well-rested. That's why people who drive cars over long distances sleep in shifts. Abstinence doesn't work against sex or food, even with peer support. It won't work against sleep, either.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Charging fat people more for ambulance service. 2)  Debating, clarifying, and rethinking  the Polanski case. 3) The beauty of artificial virginity.)

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