A double-edged excitement is buzzing through aviation circles about the first "polar vaults," Continental's and United's new flights from New York to Hong Kong via the North Pole and Russia.
While providing the shortest hop between the cities, along with rare views of the world's northernmost cap, the new flights are also, at more than 15 hours, the longest nonstop hauls in history.
And it's the length of those transpolar legs that has touched a nerve with the nation's pilots. In the past few years, pilots have contended the record air traffic, along with record delays, have made pilot fatigue one of the country's top, and most neglected, safety issues. Now, they're concerned that the introduction of an increasing number of such super-long flights, many of which are all night "red eyes," will only exacerbate the problem.
"Exposure to fatigue risk continues to increase with the advent of more and more flying in the late-night to predawn hours," says Capt. Rich Rubin, of the Allied Pilots Association. "It's going to put even greater demands on human performance."
Airlines insist they are meeting all safety standards. At the same time, they're trying to satisfy the public's seemingly insatiable desire for faster and cheaper service. They say the pilots' demands for limits on the length of their workday will create more havoc in the skies.
"We're trying to keep the system working, which means efficient, safe air-transport service for our employees and our passengers," says Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the major airlines' lobbying arm. He says it will create service disruptions and "additional delays and gridlock."
Pilots take offense at such characterizations, saying no one should be on duty for more than 16 hours a day at most.
Indeed, pilot fatigue has long been on the National Transportation Safety Board's "most wanted" list of safety fixes. And the Federal Aviation Administration, which for the past six years has been trying to come up with new regulations, has weathered harsh criticism for failing to act faster. As a result, in the last few months, pilots have stepped up their fight to bring their concerns to the public.
Increased rest time is one of the four top demands that is keeping Comair pilots walking the picket line for the second week in a row. Last month, the Coalition of Airline Pilot Associations (CAPA) called on the FAA to expedite enactment of new regulations, contending the current rules and record levels of air traffic have created "unacceptable levels" of fatigue across the industry. A 1998 study by federal aviation experts at NASA found that 1 in 7 pilots nod off in the cockpit.
Last fall, the FAA did clarify its current rules on pilot rest in response to a request from the Allied Pilots Association. It said that in any 24-hour period, a pilot should be able to find eight hours of rest. For the pilots, it was a long overdue clarification that closed a loophole that had kept some pilots on duty for unlimited amounts of time. The clarification, they say, set a straightforward 16-hour limit.
"After about 17 hours of wakefulness, research has shown that performance is equivalent to somebody who's drunk, operating with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent," says Captain Rubin.
Based on recommendations from NASA, pilots are urging the FAA set a maximum of 12 hours on duty.
But the FAA clarification enraged airlines. They felt the agency had blindsided them with a new interpretation of old rules that allowed pilots to exceed the 16-hour limit due to weather or mechanical delays outside the airlines' control.
From the carriers' perspective, as long as a pilot was "scheduled" for eight hours of rest, even if they didn't actually get it, the airlines were following regulations.
The carriers filed suit to block the interpretation. But the FAA has held fast, insisting that the clarification did not represent a change in policy.
And that has created controversy. In January, a pilot for a small regional carrier in New Hampshire named Pan Am Airways realized that due to a mechanical delay, he would have ended up on duty between 17 and 20 hours if he flew the last leg of his scheduled day.
He refused, citing the FAA regulations. He was fired. The FAA is investigating.
But in the meantime, tension continues to build in the sky, along with accusations. The airlines insist that if a pilot says he or she is tired, they're immediately let off duty.
"On paper, yes, that's exactly what's supposed happen, but they're lying to you," says pilot Jim Evans, spokesman for the Comair Airline Pilots Association.
"When we do [say we're fatigued], the company threatens us and orders us to fly, that sort of thing."
As a result, pilots routinely work past their duty limits, particularly when weather or mechanical problems cause delays.
"The problem with fatigue is that it's insidious," says Rubin. "The people who are fatigued don't realize to what extent they're impaired. That's why hard limits are so important."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor