Video: FAA sets new rules to combat pilot fatigue

  1. Closed captioning of: FAA sets new rules to combat pilot fatigue

    >>> coming to the nation's skies for the first time since the 1960s the faa has announced a set of tough new rules to ensure pilots get enough rest between flights. nbc's tom costello covers aviation. he is at reagan national airport . tom, good morning.

    >> reporter: hey, carl. good morning to you. you know, it's been nearly three years since the crash in buffalo killed 50 people. when coming up with these new rules the faa took a hard look at science, the science of sleep cycles, jet lag , flying through mulltiple time zones , and then used that science when coming up with the new rules. for the families of the people who died on flight 3407 outside of buffalo three years ago, a tribute to their tenacity and determination.

    >> these families, with unimaginable heart break, turned that into a powerful commitment to save the lives of others.

    >> reporter: investigators determined pilot error was to blame for the crash, but the investigation put intense focus on the airlines, especially regional carriers. grueling work schedules for pilots , long distance commutes, and exhaustion. now the first faa rule change to address pilot fatigue in nearly 50 years setting a maximum duty day for pilots of 9 to 14 hours depending on where and when they're flying, maximum flying time will be 9 to 10 hours. pilots will get a minimum of ten hours' rest time between flights. that is two hours more than the current rules. with an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep and at least 30 consecutive hours of time off per week. also another change for pilots who may have commuted long distances.

    >> when they get in, they sign off on the flight plan . i am fit for duty.

    >> reporter: investigators believe neither pilot in the colgan air crash had slept well the night before after commuting long distances cross country . for three years the families of the crash victims pushed lawmakers, the faa , and the airline to address pilot fatigue. among the victims, beverly eckert, whose husband died on 9/11.

    >> they were the motivating force behind what we did and they will continue to motivate us for everything else that we really intend to accomplish before we go away. and we're not going away soon.

    >> reporter: meanwhile, pilots complain of fatigue every day and managing it, says nbc aviation expert john cox , makes flying the plane all that more challenging.

    >> it's staying ahead of the airplane, ensuring that all the many details of the flight are done, done correctly, and done in a timely manner. the more fatigued you are, the more difficult that becomes.

    >> reporter: the pilots ' unions are supporting this move. the airline industry is cautiously moving forward with it. one group of airlines got a pass completely and that's the cargo carriers. carl, they argued that it would be far too expensive for them to implement this rule. the faa gave them an exemption and so u.p.s., fedex, and the like are not bound by this new rule.

updated 12/21/2011 3:36:31 PM ET 2011-12-21T20:36:31

The government told passenger airlines Wednesday they'll have to do more to ensure pilots aren't too tired to fly, nearly three years after the deadly western New York crash of a regional airliner flown by two exhausted pilots.

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The Federal Aviation Administration's update of airline pilot work rules, some of which dated to the 1960s, reflects a better understanding of the need for rest and how night shifts and traveling through time zones can increase errors.

"This is a big deal," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. "This is as far as our government has ever gone" to protect the traveling public from pilot fatigue.

Carriers have two years to adapt to the new rules. The FAA estimated the cost to industry at $297 million over 10 years, a fraction of the $2 billion a year that an airline trade association had estimated the draft proposal released by FAA over a year ago would cost.

The airline industry had opposed the draft rule as too costly for the safety benefits it would achieve. But FAA officials made substantial changes to the final rule to lower the cost. Several expensive reporting and training requirements were eliminated.

Safety advocates have been urging FAA for over two decades to update pilot work rules, but previous efforts stalled after airlines and pilots unions were unable to agree on changes. Those efforts were revived after the February 2009 crash near Buffalo that killed 50 people. Families of the dead have lobbied relentlessly for more stringent regulations to fight pilot fatigue.

The rules would limit the maximum time a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty — including wait time before flights and administrative duties — to between nine and 14 hours. The total depends on the time of day pilots begin their first flight and the number of time zones crossed.

The maximum amount of time pilots can be scheduled to fly is limited to eight or nine hours, and pilots would get a minimum of 10 hours to rest between duty periods, a two-hour increase over the old rules. The minimum amount of time off between work weeks will be increased 25 percent, and there will be new limits on how many hours per month pilots can fly. Pilots flying overnight would be allowed fewer hours than pilots flying during the day.

But cargo carriers — which do much of their flying overnight when people naturally crave sleep — are exempted from the new rules. The FAA said forcing cargo carriers to reduce the number of hours their pilots can fly would be too costly when compared with the safety benefits.

Imposing the rules on cargo airlines like Federal Express or United Parcel Service would have added another $214 million to the cost, FAA officials said.

The exemption for cargo carriers, which runs counter to the FAA's goal of "one level of safety" across the aviation industry, drew strong criticism from pilots unions.

"To potentially allow fatigued cargo pilots to share the same skies with properly rested passenger pilots creates an unnecessary threat to public safety. We can do better," said Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS pilots.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman, while calling the new rule "a huge improvement," also expressed dismay that cargo operations weren't included.

"A tired pilot is a tired pilot, whether there are 10 paying customers on board or 100, whether the payload is passengers or pallets," she said.

LaHood said he plans to invite top officials from cargo airlines to meet with him next month so that he can urge them to voluntarily follow the new rules.

The charter airlines that transport nearly 90 percent of U.S. troops around the world had also lobbied heavily for an exemption to the new rules, saying military missions could be jeopardized. But FAA officials rejected those pleas.

The rules will prevent about one and a half accidents a year and an average of six deaths a year, FAA officials predict. They should also improve pilots' health, officials said.

Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America trade association, said the group is reviewing the new requirements. "We support changes to the rule that are science-based and that will improve safety," she wrote in an email.

Researchers say fatigue, much like alcohol, can impair a pilot's performance by slowing reflexes and eroding judgment.

The changes replace "rules that were dangerously obsolete and completely ineffective," said Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. "The rule applies fatigue science in a way that makes sense."

Susan Bourque, who lost a sister in the Buffalo air crash, said she was particularly pleased that the rule will require pilots to sign a statement before each flight stating that they are rested and fit for duty. "It's a pretty good day," said Bourque, of East Aurora, N.Y.

Scheduling wasn't an issue in the Buffalo accident, but NTSB concluded that the pilots' performance was likely impaired by fatigue.

Neither pilot appeared to have slept in a bed the previous night. The flight's captain had logged onto a computer in the middle of the night from an airport crew lounge where sleeping was discouraged. The first officer had commuted overnight from Seattle to Newark, N.J., much of the time sitting in a cockpit jumpseat. They could be heard yawning on the ill-fated flight's cockpit voice recorder.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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