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Britain wakes up to a cockpit secret

London, Feb. 16: British airline pilots are taking “naps” for up to two hours during long-haul flights and ordering cabin crew not to disturb them.

The practice has alarmed fellow pilots and cabin crew who fear a disaster if the co-pilot also falls asleep, or ill — leaving nobody in control of the aircraft. They have blamed the problem on a breakdown in relations between pilots and cabin crew since the government, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, forced airlines to lock the cockpit door during all flights.

Before September 11, the cabin crew would go into the cockpit every 20 minutes, usually with a cup of tea for the pilots but also — and more important — to check that the pilots were all right and had not both fallen asleep.

One experienced British Airways pilot said that on a recent long-haul flight, he got “the fright of my life” when his captain took a “sleep break” and he felt himself dozing off minutes later. “Fortunately, I jumped as I was nodding off and that woke me up,” the co-pilot said. “But it was terrifying to think what might have happened if I had fallen asleep, because the captain had told the cabin crew not to disturb him.”

It is an accepted practice for one of the pilots to take a “catnap” during long-haul flights, so that he will be fresher for the approach and landing at the destination. The other pilot, however — two is the minimum number of pilots on each flight — is still supposed to talk with the cabin crew at least every 20 minutes.

British Airways last week condemned the practice and said any pilot or cabin crew member found to be breaking the 20-minute rule on a BA flight would face disciplinary action.

“This is an important safety issue and we take it very seriously,” a spokesman said.

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