Alaska Airlines Cargo Worker Falls Asleep in Plane Cargo Compartment

Here’s a recent story from right here in my home base of Seattle, Washington:

Six days ago, as Alaska Airlines flight #448 took off from SeaTac International Airport, passengers heard someone pounding from below the cabin.  A cargo worker was trapped in the cargo compartment of the now airborne Boeing 737.  This as-of-yet unidentified man, an employee of contractor Menzies Aviation, called 911 upon realizing he was trapped in the belly of the plane.  Upon learning of the presence of someone in the compartment, the pilot turned around for a hasty but safe emergency landing back at SeaTac.  No one was injured.

 

Turns out that this man had fallen asleep in the cargo compartment and he later awakened to find himself–and the plane–airborne and on its way to Los Angeles.  The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the incident, and by report the man is on administrative leave; furthermore, according to an Alaska Airlines spokesperson he has been “permanently banned from ever working again on an Alaska Airlines operation.”

It’s not clear from the news reports why the contractor was asleep in the cargo compartment; by report he passed a drug test subsequent to the event.  However, this incident took place around 2:30 in the afternoon on a Monday.  From a physician sleep specialist’s perspective, here are some important potential reasons for someone to end up snoozing in the wrong place at the wrong time:

Irregular sleep schedules, which could be related to a wide variety of causes, from insomnia to some late weekend nights to flip-flopping work shifts (it’s not yet clear if this man’s particular work scheduling involved occasional or recent night-time work).

Chronic sleep deprivation.  Most adults require 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night regularly to feel fully rested during the day, and the most common cause of sleepiness in the U.S. is sleep deprivation.

Undiagnosed and/or untreated sleep disorders.  There are about 100 sleep disorders, ranging from breathing disorders (such as obstructive sleep apnea) to movement disorders (such as periodic limb movement disorder).  Commonly associated with excessive daytime sleepiness, these intrinsic sleep disorders often can persist for many years before coming to the attention of a healthcare provider.

I should note here that it’s not necessarily abnormal to feel a little sleepy or “let down” in the mid-afternoon.  Our natural tendency to become slightly drowsy or fatigued during that time of day is called the “circadian dip” or “circadian low;” it also provides the reasoning for the “siestas” commonly found in some cultures.  However, warningless sleep attacks and irresistible urges to sleep during that time suggest that more than just the circadian low may be at work.

 

Though I understand that Alaska Airlines does not permit people to “sleep on the job,” my real concern here is why this person experienced a sudden sleep attack or felt compelled to take a nap in the compartment in the first place.  I hope that this gentleman has been or will soon be properly evaluated in this regard.

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