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New rules coming to fight pilots' fatigue?

Crowded skies and exhausted pilots are a bad mix, the airline industry and pilot unions agree, but they're struggling over what to do about it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Crowded skies and exhausted pilots are a bad mix, the airline industry and pilot unions agree, but they're struggling over what to do about it.

The airlines want to schedule some pilots with less-taxing flights — fewer takeoffs and landings — but for longer, not shorter, hours in the cockpit. The unions say they won't agree to more hours for those pilots in exchange for fewer hours for pilots who fly as many as a half dozen short flights a day or take off at odd times.

That was the main sticking point in an otherwise harmonious effort over the past month and a half to rewrite flying-time rules that in many cases are a half-century old and predate recent scientific findings concerning fatigue. The advisory committee on pilot fatigue delivered its recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration late Tuesday.

Committee members said the FAA had asked them not to make their recommendations public.

Concerned by the possibility that pilot fatigue has contributed to fatal crashes, some members of Congress have been pressing for changes.

There are likely to be at least three sets of recommendations. Labor, passenger airlines and cargo carriers all have their own lists, participants said.

"There will be more than one sheet of music coming out," said Russ Leighton, director of aviation safety for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It will be up to FAA to write the final tune, he said.

Although Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt has promised to go over those recommendations swiftly and turn them into a formal proposal by the FAA, the process will at a minimum take months to complete.

Current rules say pilots can be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty and up to eight hours of actual flight time in a day, with a minimum of eight hours off in between. The rules don't take into account that it is probably more tiring for regional airline pilots to fly five or six short legs in seven hours than it is for a pilot with a major airline to fly eight hours across the Atlantic to Europe with only one takeoff and landing.

Finding ways to prevent pilot fatigue has stymied federal regulators and the airline industry for decades. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending since 1990 that rules on how many hours pilots can be scheduled to work be updated to reflect modern research and take into account early starting times and frequent takeoffs and landings.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said she didn't expect Tuesday's recommendations to address all the issues but hoped they would create a foundation. "You have to build all the rest of the house around it," she said.

Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation think tank in Alexandria, Va., said there's now enough research to answer a lot of the questions that used to keep airline management and pilots on opposite sides of the debate, with pilots wanting tighter restrictions and airlines wanting more efficiency.

One change that might make sense would be allowing back-to-back flights from one U.S. coast to the other, he said. Fatigue rules currently prohibit such flights, but a pilot might be less tired flying from Los Angeles to New York and back in one day rather than doing it after just a few hours of sleep, Voss said.

That possibility was raised by airline representatives at the fatigue committee meetings, participants said.

"We think that everybody recognizes that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

Some members of Congress don't trust the FAA to finally come to grips with the problem. A bill under consideration in the House would force the agency's hand. It also would require airlines to use fatigue risk management systems — complex scheduling programs that alert a company to potential problems.

After the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the bill last month, Chairman James Oberstar ran through a list of airline crashes in recent decades.

"The common thread running through all of it is fatigue," said Oberstar, D-Minn. "We have many experiences of the flight crew, the cabin crew, who in cases of emergency were just so numb they couldn't respond instantly to a tragedy at hand."

Linda Zimmerman, a retired Ohio teacher whose sister died in a 2004 regional airline crash in Kirksville, Mo., said the pace of the government's response saddened her.

"So many people have died and they haven't done anything about it," she said.

Corporate Airlines Flight 5966 was preparing to land on Oct. 19, 2004, when the twin-engine turboprop slammed into trees. The pilots and 11 passengers were killed. Two injured passengers survived by jumping from the plane moments before it was engulfed in flames.

The NTSB said the pilots failed to notice that their plane had descended too quickly because they didn't follow procedures and engaged in unprofessional cockpit banter. But the board also said the captain and first officer probably were exhausted — they were completing their sixth flight of the day, had been on duty more than 14 hours and had flown three trips the day before.

Studies show exhaustion can impair a pilot's judgment in much the same way alcohol does. It's not uncommon for overtired pilots to focus on a conversation or a single chore and miss other things going on around them, including critical flight information. In a few cases, they've just fallen asleep.

Last year, two go! airlines pilots conked out for at least 18 minutes during a midmorning flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii, as their plane continued to cruise past its destination and out to sea. Air traffic controllers were finally able to raise the pilots, who turned around the plane with its 40 passengers and landed it safely. The airline is a Mesa Airlines subsidiary.

NTSB said that even though the pilots had not been working long that day, they were clearly fatigued. They cited the pilots' work schedules — the day of the incident was the third straight both had started duty at 5:40 a.m. — and said the captain had an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.

FAA rules on how many hours an airline pilot may fly or be on duty before he must rest have been virtually unchanged for nearly a half-century. If airlines had to allow their crews more rest, they would have to hire more crews.

NTSB's investigation of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12 near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50, has spotlighted the long hours, low pay and long-distance commutes of regional airline pilots.

It's not clear where the captain of Flight 3407 slept the night before the crash, but it appears he may have tried to nap in a busy airport crew room where his company — regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Va., which operated the flight for Continental — kept bright lights on to discourage extended sleeping. The first officer commuted overnight from her home near Seattle to Newark, N.J., to make the flight to Buffalo.

The fatigue committee put aside the question of whether such long-distance commutes — a cherished prerogative of flight crews — contribute to fatigue and should be restricted.

"Both sides agreed it's the responsibility of a professional pilot to show up for work fit and rested and ready to fly," Leighton said.


Associated Press Writer Josh Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.