FAA head vows to crack down on pilot fatigue

Gary Wiepert/Reuters/File
The Federal Aviation Administration is pushing for a new rule on pilot fatigue in the wake of a commuter plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y. (Pictured: A Continental turboprop moves along a snowy runway at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.)

The sleepy pilot – a problem that regulators and industry insiders have been complaining about for years – is about to get some official attention in the wake of a February crash of a commuter plane near Buffalo, N.Y.

The Buffalo News reports:

Randy Babbitt, the new FAA administrator, announced his commitment to new antifatigue rules today as regional airline executives gathered with federal officials for a "call to action" on flight safety.

"The bottom line is, I'm going to want a new rule," said Babbitt, who noted that the existing "flight time/duty time" rules for pilots are decades old and fail to take into account scientific research on fatigue since then. "We are going to get a new rule."

The crash, which caused 50 fatalities, has focused attention on the issue because both the pilot and copilot were found to be fatigued, according to initial reports from federal investigators. Concerns about fatigue have been longstanding and leaked by pilots not authorized to speak to the press. A year ago, the National Transportation Safety Board said sleepy pilots were a factor behind a regional jet skidding off the runway in Traverse City, Mich., in 2007.

The problem is partly economic. The relentless economic forces that have caused huge losses at large airlines have forced them to cut back on their flight crews and outsource operations to smaller, regional operators. In some cases, pilots have been pressured by airlines to fly despite fatigue, said John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

Congressional pressure may well be behind the Obama administration's push for new fatigue rules, which were instituted more than two decades ago when the airline industry was quite different.

At a congressional hearing this past Thursday, Mr. Babbitt said a new rule would be hard to craft and that voluntary actions were the best he could in the short run, the Associated Press reported.

Monday's rhetoric suggests that he's stepping up the effort.

The crash has also shined a spotlight on pilot training records, since the pilot of the jet that crashed near Buffalo had not informed his airline he had previously failed two important flying tests prior to be being hired.

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