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Flight attendant fatigue poses safety risks

| Saturday, June 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Henry Lund was beat after a long day as a flight attendant when he arrived at his Anchorage, Alaska, hotel desperate to sleep before a 4 a.m. wake-up call for the trip back to Minneapolis-St. Paul. He remembers taking a sleeping pill — maybe two.

The return trip last summer would end his long career at Delta and Northwest airlines.

Lund, 49, says he has no memory of the incident that got him fired: shoving another flight attendant.

His experience illustrates a broader problem for the nation's flight attendants. While they share responsibility with pilots for passenger safety, they work with less rest than foreign flight attendants and can rely more on sleeping pills than pilots.

Attendants exhausted from long hours and little rest have forgotten to engage or disarm emergency chutes, failed to properly stow baggage and carry out other safety duties. The federal government says the risk of mishaps may have increased as airlines cut rest periods to save money.

“They're showing up to work impaired,” said Peter Roma, a researcher who helped conduct studies for the Federal Aviation Administration on sleep deprivation and fatigue among flight attendants.

The hazards of fatigue appear in flight attendants' words in dozens of voluntary reports to the FAA.

“If there were an evacuation, I doubted my abilities,” wrote one about the impact of working 12 hours without a break. “I felt like an endangerment to my passengers.”

Another injured a foot after she was struck by full coffee pots she forgot to secure. “This occurred because I was very tired,” the flight attendant wrote.

“None of us (was) alert enough to have been able to efficiently respond to an aircraft emergency,” one said.

There has been plenty of concern about tired pilots. The FAA in 2011 toughened its rules for pilot rest after safety investigators determined that pilots in the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in upstate New York were likely impaired by fatigue.

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