An Italian Pilot Fell Asleep 38,000 Feet Above the Ground and Sparked Panic in France

This 10-minute catnap almost caused an international incident

Shot of underbelly of ITA airways plane mid-flight

Matteo Arrotta / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

If there's one person you don't want falling asleep on the job, it's the person flying your plane.

On April 30, ITA Airways flight AZ609 left John F. Kennedy International Airport and was en route to Rome, carrying an Airbus 330 full of people. However, as the plane entered French airspace, ground control officials lost complete contact with the aircraft—neither the captain nor the co-pilot responded to transmissions.

Apparently, both pilots fell asleep during the scheduled "controlled rest period," which is a "short sleep" opportunity to help fight off in-flight drowsiness, as described by the ICAO and Flying magazine. However, during those brief periods, only one pilot is supposed to be sleeping while the other continues duties as usual.

After radio silence from the aircraft for 10 minutes, ground officials began to panic, afraid of a potential terrorist threat on board or even just some kind of mechanical issue. French air traffic controllers then contacted their counterparts in Italy, who tried to reach the plane by cell phone and then by Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), an aviation communications system used to transmit short messages. There, of course, was no reply.

In response to the continued failed contact, French authorities began to ready two fighter jets, wanting them to reach the aircraft and surveil the situation up close. Luckily, one of the pilots awoke and responded to the many missed communication attempts before that could happen.

After a safe landing in Rome, the airline fired the captain, though he denied falling asleep and claimed that there was a problem with the system. An internal investigation found no system errors.

ITA is a relatively new Italian airline, formed in October 2021 after the closure of Italy's former flag carrier, Alitalia. A spokesman of the airline, Davide D'Amico, assured in a statement to the Telegraph that passengers were never in any danger.

Article Sources
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  1. Flying Magazine. "Flight Safety Foundation Publishes 'Controlled Rest' Best Practices Guide." December 4, 2018.

  2. One Mile At A Time. "Report: Both Pilots Fall Asleep On Transatlantic Flight." May 31, 2022.