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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Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Falls Asleep on Air

 

The other day, Fox correspondent and commentator Tucker Carlson was caught sleeping while taping the show Fox & Friends.  When he awoke he appeared not to be aware that he had been on air during his nap.  Take a look:

I understand that there were media references to narcolepsy (a sleep disorder associated with nocturnal sleep disruption, daytime sleep attacks, and other symptoms) pertaining to Carlson’s on-air snooze, and that he afterwards stated that he had found his nap refreshing.  However, if you listen to the above video carefully, you will hear him suggest that sleep deprivation may have been to blame:  “I sat in for Sean Hannity last night. It went late and all of a sudden I was sitting there and I was just having these happy thoughts and just dozed off.”

Alas, falling asleep on-air is a phenomenon not new to Fox News.  Just for fun, I present to you yet another incident, this time from the Fox affiliate in Austin, Texas:

This sort of thing shows up in the media from time to time:  someone in a televised program dozing on-air.  It also makes sense for morning reporters and anchors particularly to be prone to this problem, because they typically have to awaken so early to go to work.  Everybody’s having a great time with this latest episode with Carlson, too, as you can imagine:  “Tuckered Carlson!” “Fox Snooze!”  Though these incidents are kind of funny to watch, they also are an opportunity for people like me–who work in the realm of sleep medicine–to make some important points about daytime sleepiness.  Here goes:

1.  Daytime sleepiness is much more commonly caused by plain ol’ sleep deprivation than by narcolepsy.  Most adults require around 7.5-8 hours of sleep per night to feel fully rested, and in our American culture many of us do not make time for this much sleep, at least consistently.  How many people do you know that regularly get 7.5-8 hours of sleep each night?  Sleep deprivation may well be the single most common cause of daytime sleepiness in the U.S.  Narcolepsy, though not necessarily a rare disorder, is much less common than sleep deprivation.

2.  A tendency to fall asleep by accident during the day is not equal to or the same as having narcolepsy.  Narcolepsy is a central nervous system disease, of which daytime sleepiness is a cardinal symptom; however, it is a very complex sleep disorder that we in sleep medicine continue to strive to understand through research.  Many other things can cause daytime sleepiness:  sleep deprivation; irregular sleep schedules; insomnia; untreated sleep apnea; the list goes on and on.

3.  If you really DO have narcolepsy, a brief (15-20 minute) nap usually IS refreshing.  This is one of many potentially distinguishing clinical features of narcolepsy; a brief nap in the setting of sleep deprivation alone may or may not be refreshing, and can often cause the napper to feel worse, not better, upon awakening, because only a small amount of the “sleep debt” was “paid back” during that nap.  For my narcoleptic patients, I in fact typically recommend scheduled naps as part of their management regimen.  But just because you find your naps refreshing doesn’t necessarily mean you have narcolepsy either.

Have a great Labor Day, everyone!