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Is the smoking ban to blame for tired pilots? 

May, 2011: Original piece from Danish newspaper JP and KlausKblog: Er rygeforbud skyld i trætte piloter?

  • Smokers can keep concentrated for hours longer than non-smokers 
  • Doctors warned against smoking ban in cockpits as early as 1976
By Niels Ipsen, environmental biologist & Klaus Kjellerup, researcher 

- According to recent media reports Danish Air Traffic Authorities have recorded a fourfold increase in the number of reported pilot errors due to fatigue. 

The number of errors has risen sharply in the last three years. In 2008 there were eight Danish error events compared to only two 10 years ago. In 2011 (by mid April) the number has already risen to four.

New EU rules on working hours, forcing the pilots to fly 60 week hours per week, were suggested as the cause. However, there may be other reasons:

The smoking ban, which since 2007 has prohibited smoking pilots from smoking in flight, has an unfortunate side effect: It reduces the smoking pilot's concentration and stamina significantly - with the risk of a fatal error.

Smokers are more alert

This is proven in scientific studies: Smokers are able to stay awake and maintain concentration many hours longer than non-smokers - provided that they can smoke (1).

Smokers however, do worse than non-smokers in the tests when they cannot smoke.

Already in 1967 six-hour tests were conducted in simulators with smokers, nonsmokers and "abstinent" smokers. The experiments showed that "abstinent" smokers fared worst, while smokers in turn fared best of all after three hours, where non-smokers' concentration broke down.

In 1976 proposals were put forward in the United States to prohibit pilots from smoking on airplanes for security reasons. The idea was dropped when the chief scientist behind the simulation experiments, Dr. Norman Heimstra, stated that research showed clearly that a chain-smoking pilot would be the best to handle crisis situations in the air.

Many recent studies have confirmed this. Today we know that nicotine is the cause. Nicotine is highly suitable for work, which was documented in 2010 in a large analysis of 48 high quality nicotine tests. The analysis was conducted by the U.S. government's National Institute on Drug Abuse (2). It is available at URL: www.klauskblog.dk

Researchers conclude that nicotine enhances the brain's performance significantly in the areas of speed, focus, attention, working memory and motor skills.

A boost to the brain

The positive "boost" of the brain occurs not only from smoking but also from the use of smokeless tobacco, nicotine patches and chewing gum - but not as much as from smoking, which is clearly the most powerful method of nicotine delivery.

Naturally, no one can demand that pilots must take nicotine or smoke to improve flight safety, but there are strong indications that the increase in pilot error may be linked to the smoking ban.

We urge that the relationship be examined.

There is no doubt that greater air safety is obtained by allowing pilots to smoke, which may be more important than the moral satisfaction of knowing that the flight deck is non-smoking.


1. Science is conclusive: Tobacco increases work capacity, KlausKblog, 2011

2. Meta-analysis of the acute effects of nicotine and smoking on human performance, Heishman, Kleykamp & Singleton. Psychopharmacology, 2010

Also read: 

Doctors shocked over pilot fatigue, Politiken, 18. April 2011

Transport Minister overrules Traffic Authority data on pilots, Politiken, 19. April 2011

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