Pilot fatigue grows as problem for airlines

As the industry's finances worsen, pilots fret about falling asleep at the controls as flying hours get longer.

The nation's top airlines are still wallowing in red ink, and their pilots are tired - some literally exhausted.

Or so says Jane Meher. That's not her real name. As a pilot who's not a union official, she says she's forbidden by contract to talk to the press. Still, she was concerned enough about what she sees as a deteriorating safety standard that she came forward. And so did others.

"Every pilot I talk to feels like they're being pushed to the limit," says Captain Meher. "It hasn't created a problem yet, but it could."

Fatigue has long been one of the top problems on the list of "Most Wanted Safety Fixes" from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Since the 2001 recession and Sept. 11 plunged the major airlines into a financial sinkhole, pilots say the fatigue problem has gotten steadily worse. And it's reaching a nadir during this summer's peak travel season, with airline staffing pared down and more Americans returning to the skies.

Part of the problem is that many pilots are flying more hours than ever before because of work-rule concessions they made to try to help the financially strapped carriers. Another factor is what critics call the archaic Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules governing how much rest pilots should get between flights. The current ones were developed in 1985, when the airline industry was entirely different. Critics contend that on one hand, they're inadequate in terms of ensuring the pilot gets a good night's rest - and on the other hand, their inflexibility ends up complicating scheduling, which can exacerbate the fatigue problem.

The major airlines and the FAA acknowledge that economic challenges have put new pressures on pilots, but each also insists that safety has not been compromised in any way.

"Our rules set a minimum standard that provides for safe flight in this country," says Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman. "We believe [they are] are still providing for safe flight."

Experts hope Ms. Duquette is right, but they also say the complaints about fatigue reflect a basic problem with carriers like American, United, and Delta: They're operating with unsustainable cost structures and are inherently inefficient. To survive, they'll need to change fundamentally. "I think they finally get it, but I'm not sure they can do it," says Richard Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland in Oregon.

Since 1993, the NTSB has cited fatigue as a contributing factor in three commercial airline accidents. The most recent was the July 2002 crash of a FedEx cargo jet in Tallahassee, Fla. In that case, the pilots were flying on "the backside of the clock" - aviation jargon for a late-night, early-morning shift. Last month the NTSB noted pointedly in findings on the crash that more research needs to be done on such flights.

Pilots whom the Monitor spoke with seconded that, saying that's even more important now that strapped airlines try to cover more flights with fewer flight crews. It's not only that crews are flying more hours, but they're also working far more erratic schedules. One captain of a major airline says he's scheduled to fly for two days, one all-nighter, and then for two days again. "That's when you have the major fatigue problem," says the captain, who didn't want his name used. "Just try sleeping in the middle of the day, particularly in a hotel room. 'Do not disturb' signs don't mean anything to the maids."

A spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the lobbying arm of the major airlines, acknowledges that some carriers are working to increase productivity to keep costs down. "But we adamantly are not going to do that at the cost of safety," says Jack Evans.

But pilots unions aren't satisfied that is the case. They've been pushing the FAA to update fatigue rules since the early 1990s. In 1995, the FAA proposed some changes, but since then the issue has languished in political limbo - because the airlines and pilots can't agree on new rules, and the FAA is reluctant to impose them.

"We're not holding our breath because years ago they were saying that new rules were imminent, and it keeps getting pushed back," says Bill Edmunds, a fatigue specialist at the Allied Pilots Association. "But we're still trying to get some action on it."

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