Pilot fatigue has been on the National Transportation Safety Board's list of "most wanted safety fixes" since 1990. This year, something might finally be done to address it.
The administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Randolph Babbitt, himself a retired pilot, this week said he would expedite the establishment of new rules to guide how many hours pilots can fly each day and each month.
His decision follows fatigue-related incidents, including February's crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., in which all 49 people on board were killed along with one person on the ground. The NTSB has said pilot fatigue was a contributing factor. Operated by Colgan Air, a regional carrier based in Virginia, the flight became the subject of congressional hearings and prompted a flurry of news stories about pilot fatigue and the grueling schedules and low pay of pilots who fly for smaller, regional carriers.
Moreover, the NTSB this week released its report on another fatigue-related incident in February, in which two pilots for the regional carrier go! in Hawaii fell asleep with the autopilot on and flew past their destination by 26 miles. Neither air traffic controllers nor other planes could contact them for 18 minutes. Then they woke up.
Why airlines resist new rules
Why has the FAA taken so long to address the fatigue issue? A top reason, analysts say, is intransigence by airlines, who note that most of their rules are stricter than existing FAA guidelines and who question some of the research about fatigue and safety.
"Those who are opposed to tightening up and raising the standards always say, 'there's not enough science,' when what they really mean is that it's going to raise costs," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "The Colgan crash has brought some much-needed light on this issue."
Speaking to the Air Line Pilots Association on Wednesday, FAA Administrator Babbitt said existing regulations, known as the flight time, duty time, and rest time rules, are from the "propeller era" and need to be updated. Doing that takes time, he said, in part because he wants the most difficult issues to be addressed. He said the committee working on proposed new rules, facing a Sept. 1 deadline, is asking hard questions such as: "Which pilot deals with more fatigue, the person who does Detroit to Narita [Japan] at night, with rest opportunities and bunks? Or the pilot who has eight takeoffs and landings in one duty period and [in challenging weather] – and all without leaving the East Coast?"
Flying in to fly the plane out
Pilot lifestyle can also contribute to fatigue, say aviation experts. Some pilots choose to live far from the cities where they're based. As a courtesy, most airlines allow pilots to fly for free so they can get to work in various cities – a practice called "dead-heading."
"A complicating factor is how pilots choose to live their lives – in particular, where they choose to live relative to their base of operations," says Clint Oster, an aviation analyst at Indiana University at Bloomington. "It's certainly not true for all pilots, but you do get pilots who do a lot of dead-heading because they don't want to live where they work."
Pilots of regional carriers, in particular, may not have much choice. Pay is so low that some can't afford to live in the cities where they're based. The copilot of the Colgan Air flight that crashed last February, for instance, lived at her parents' home in Seattle and commuted to work in Newark, N.J. In the year before the crash, she made $18,000, according to federal investigators. The pilot, also based out of Newark, lived in Florida.
"There's a reluctance to deal with this issue on the company side because it's going to translate into higher staffing levels, so it will increase costs and limit the flexibility in how a company can roster crew members," says Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, N.Y. "But from the pilots' perspective, it may impinge on lifestyle choices."
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