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FAA to propose new rules on airline pilot hours

/ Source: The Associated Press

Obama administration officials said Monday they will propose new limits on how many hours airline pilots can fly in an effort to curb pilot fatigue, an issue safety officials have been urging action on for two decades.

Randy Babbitt, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he will propose the new rule in the next several months. A former airline pilot who has been at FAA only a few weeks, Babbitt said the issue is complicated because a pilot flying fewer hours with more takeoffs and landings will likely experience more fatigue than a pilot on a longer flight with only one takeoff and one landing.

"The bottom line is I'm going to want a new rule," said Babbitt, who was accompanied by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at a media briefing.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been urging the FAA for 19 years to strengthen regulations on pilot hours. FAA proposed a new rule in 1995, but action stalled after pilot unions and industry disagreed on the proposal. The unions wanted to reduce the number of hours pilots can be on duty and increase time off between flights, while airlines opposed the changes.

"It's money," said Dave Ross, a trustee for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents pilot unions at six regional airlines. "If you can't fly a pilot as long as you do today, then that increases your cost."

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transportation Association, a trade association for the airline industry, declined to comment, saying it would be premature since no rule has yet been proposed.

FAA regulations generally limit pilots to no more than 16 hours on duty and eight hours of scheduled flight time. Pilots must also have eight hours off between shifts.

Babbitt and LaHood spoke to reporters after a daylong, closed-door meeting with airline executives and union officials to discuss ways to improve safety at regional airlines.

The meeting was prompted by the crash of Continental Express Flight 3407, on Feb. 12 near Buffalo, N.Y., which killed 50 people.

An NTSB hearing last month exposed a series of critical errors by Flight 3407's captain, Marvin Renslow, and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw that preceded the crash. Their Bombardier Dash 8-Q400, a twin-engine turboprop, experienced an aerodynamic stall before plunging into a house.

Shaw, who was paid $23,900 a year, commuted overnight from near Seattle, where she lived with her parents, to report to work at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey on the day of the flight. It is not clear how much sleep she and Renslow — who lived near Tampa, Fla., and earned about $65,000 a year — had the night before, but they may have tried to nap in an airport crew lounge.

The hearing turned a spotlight on safety at regional airlines, including pilot hiring and training. Renslow failed two important tests of his flying skills before he was hired by Colgan Air of Manassas, Va., which operated the flight for Continental. He didn't tell Colgan about the failed tests and the regional carrier didn't seek complete records from the FAA.

Babbitt said that he has directed FAA to advise airlines that the agency expects them to seek privacy waivers from the pilots they want to hire so that FAA can send complete training records.

Airlines were also told FAA expects them to participate in two safety programs that are currently voluntary. One of the programs allows airlines with the aid of pilot unions to download information contained in cockpit flight data recorders so that they can spot mistakes pilots may be making and use the information to improve training.

Some regional airlines haven't been participating in the program because of the expense involved, Ross said.

Major carriers were also encouraged at the meeting to open their training programs to the regional airlines they partner with.