(NEW YORK) -- Despite denials from the airline industry, large numbers of pilots report to duty every day after getting only a few hours of what fatigue experts call "destructive sleep" in crowded crew lounges and so-called "crash pads," an ABC News investigation has found. Widespread pilot fatigue is putting airline passengers at risk, say critics, and may already have cost lives.
Current and former pilots described missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep in mid-flight are some of the findings ABC News uncovered.
Former Continental Express pilot Josh Reikes says one captain warned him, "Don't you ever let me wake up and find you sleeping."
America's most famous pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, doubts he could have landed his stricken U.S. Airways jet safely in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard, if he had slept in a lounge or crash pad. "Had we been tired, had we not gotten sufficient rest the night before," said Sullenberger, "we could not have performed at the same level."
Undercover video taken inside the crew lounges by pilots was provided to ABC News contradicts what the FAA says it has been told about the use of crew lounges for overnight sleep.
"We're getting a different answer than you're getting, so somewhere there's a gap," FAA administrator Randy Babbitt told ABC News.
"Good sleeping occurs in a dark room, a quiet room, a room that's cool in temperature, and a room where there is no intrusive noise," said Dr. Martin Moore-Ede, a fatigue expert who consults for airlines, unions and the government. "That does not describe a crew lounge."
The report comes two years after the crash in Buffalo of Continental Connection flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air, that killed 50 people. The pilot of the plane, who commuted to his Newark base from Florida, had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark airport, raising concerns about the role of fatigue with safety investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board. The co-pilot had commuted to work on overnight flights from Seattle and also tried to sleep in the crew lounge, unable to afford a hotel room.
"We did recognize that they were likely impaired by fatigue," says Deborah Hersmann, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB also found that about 70 percent of the Colgan Air pilots based at Newark were commuters, many coming from long distances to work. Approximately 20 percent commuted from more than 1,000 miles away.
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