Fatigue on the flight deck: the consequences of sleep loss and the benefits of napping

Accid Anal Prev. 2014 Jan:62:309-18. doi: 10.1016/j.aap.2013.10.010. Epub 2013 Oct 19.


The detrimental effects of fatigue in aviation are well established, as evidenced by both the number of fatigue-related mishaps and numerous studies which have found that most pilots experience a deterioration in cognitive performance as well as increased stress during the course of a flight. Further, due to the nature of the average pilot's work schedule, with frequent changes in duty schedule, early morning starts, and extended duty periods, fatigue may be impossible to avoid. Thus, it is critical that fatigue countermeasures be available which can help to combat the often overwhelming effects of sleep loss or sleep disruption. While stimulants such as caffeine are typically effective at maintaining alertness and performance, such countermeasures do nothing to address the actual source of fatigue - insufficient sleep. Consequently, strategic naps are considered an efficacious means of maintaining performance while also reducing the individual's sleep debt. These types of naps have been advocated for pilots in particular, as opportunities to sleep either in the designated rest facilities or on the flight deck may be beneficial in reducing both the performance and alertness impairments associated with fatigue, as well as the subjective feelings of sleepiness. Evidence suggests that strategic naps can reduce subjective feelings of fatigue and improve performance and alertness. Despite some contraindications to implementing strategic naps while on duty, such as sleep inertia experienced upon awakening, both researchers and pilots agree that the benefits associated with these naps far outweigh the potential risks. This article is a literature review detailing both the health and safety concerns of fatigue among commercial pilots as well as benefits and risks associated with strategic napping to alleviate this fatigue.

Keywords: Aviation; Fatigue; Pilots; Safety; Sleep; Strategic napping.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aerospace Medicine*
  • Caffeine / therapeutic use
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use
  • Fatigue / physiopathology
  • Fatigue / prevention & control*
  • Fatigue / therapy
  • Humans
  • Safety
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology
  • Sleep Deprivation / prevention & control*
  • Sleep Deprivation / therapy
  • Sleep*
  • Work Schedule Tolerance / physiology


  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Caffeine