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The New FAA Rule: Facing Pilot Fatigue

The New FAA Rule: Facing Pilot FatigueFatigue is a serious issue faced by many pilots, especially commercial airline pilots. A 2006 study at Oxford University titled, "Prevalence of Fatigue among Commercial Pilots" found that "short-haul pilots have largely been neglected in studies of fatigue, sleep loss and circadian disruption created by flight operations, but anecdotal evidence from pilots suggests that with the increasing amount of low-cost air travel, commercial pilots working short-haul operations may be becoming seriously fatigued."

Of the 162 short-haul pilots studied, 75 percent reported severe fatigue and 81 percent reported the fatigue to be worse than two years ago. 80 percent considered their thought processes were reduced while flying, and severe fatigue was reported more frequently by low-cost airline pilots than scheduled airline pilots, who fly specific routes and times, for a specific amount of time. Many low-cost or budget airline pilots, on the other hand, face the increased pressure of increased flight hours and multiple sector duty days without sufficient rest.

New FAA Ruling Reduces Flight Hours

In December, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a 300-page overhaul of its safety rules on pilot fatigue. Among the new rules scheduled to take effect within two years: a commercial pilot’s workday was reduced to nine to 14 hours, from the previous 16. Pilots must also have a minimum of 10 hours rest between shifts, an increase of two hours from the previous rule. Pilots will also be guaranteed at least one 30-hour period off duty each week, an increase over the 24-hour break.

The new rules passed in large part due to the passionate and consistent lobbying of the families of the people who died when Continental Airlines Flight 3407 crashed into a house just five minutes short of Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in February 2009. Following a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the NTSB found that the accident was due in part to pilot fatigue.

For decades, aviation safety advocacy groups have been urging the FAA to update its pilot fatigue safety rules. Past efforts have failed, in part because the airlines and pilot unions could not agree on changes to pilot work schedules. The FAA called the new rules a "major safety achievement."

The FAA expects pilots and airlines will work together to determine if a pilot is fit for duty, or not. Before any flight, a pilot is required to affirmatively state that he or she is fit for duty. If a pilot reports he or she is fatigued and unfit for duty, the airline must remove that pilot from duty immediately.

Cargo Airlines Exempt from the New Rules

It has been estimated that the new ruling could cost airlines $297 million, but the benefits are estimated to be between $247 and $470 million. While consumer aviation safety advocates are relieved, some critics believe the new rules will increase flight delays due to stricter pilot-rest rules. There is also debate between the cargo airlines and pilot unions because the FAA is not requiring cargo carrier pilots to follow the same rules as commercial airline pilots.

Before the new rules were passed, cargo airlines said they would be too costly to follow "compared to the benefits generated in this portion of the industry" because their pilots frequently flew overnight to various destinations. The FAA exempted cargo carriers from adhering to the new rules, saving them estimated compliance costs of more than $200 million over 10 years. The FAA has asked the cargo carriers to voluntarily follow the new rules, but they are not legally required to do so.

Pilot Unions Oppose Cargo Carrier Exemption

In early January, union groups representing FedEx and UPS pilots spoke out in court and in Congress about the FAA’s cargo carrier exemption. The Independent Pilots Association (IPA), which represents 2,700 UPS pilots, filed a Petition for Review in the U.S. Court of Appeals — D.C. Circuit to challenge why cargo airlines are exempt from the new FAA rules.

According to the IPA’s General Council, the IPA wants cargo carrier pilots to have to abide by the new rules because of the added safety benefits provided by the rules. While the IPA does not want to delay implementation of the new rules to passenger operations, they will challenge the exemption on multiple grounds, including the fact that the FAA did not reveal how it determined the projected costs or benefits to cargo carriers if they had to apply the safety rules.

In addition to the IPA, the FedEx Master Executive Council — the FedEx branch of the Air Line Pilots Association — spoke out strongly against the exemption, saying it "completely ignores the safety of cargo pilots and instead lets operators choose to ignore the safety improvements that will benefit pilots carrying passengers."

Some people in the cargo carrier industry agree with the FAA’s exemption, saying that cargo pilots fly about half the time as passenger pilots, and thus cargo pilots should not have to follow the same rules. However, cargo pilots still fly in the same air space and over the same residential areas as commercial pilots. The distinction between pilots is not that cut and dried.

As a pilot, how do you feel about the new FAA safety rules, and the current cargo carrier exemption? How do you prevent and deal with pilot fatigue? Do you think industry-wide safety rules should apply to all pilots? Or should FAA rules be based on the industry and type of pilot? Clearly, this is a hot button issue, and the new FAA rules are shining a light on an important issue that should be debated and addressed. We'd love to hear your feedback.

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