New Rules Issued by FAA to Prevent Pilot Fatigue May Not Be Enough

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a new set of rules on December 21, 2011 in an effort to prevent fatigued airline pilots from flying. Safety advocates have been lobbying for a new set of rules governing pilot fatigue for over two decades, as pilot work schedule regulations have been largely the same since the 1960's. 

The rules come nearly three years after a fatal Colgan Air commuter airplane crash near Buffalo, New York killed 50 people. An investigation into the cause of the crash revealed that both pilots were exhausted during the flight.

The FAA believes the new rules will improve the overall health of airline pilots and cut down an average of one and a half accidents per year while reducing an average of six deaths per year.

However, critics of the new rules, which include safety officials with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), believe that the changes are not enough to ensure passenger safety. One area of concern is that pilots will be forced to police themselves under the new rules. According to the FAA, pilots will have to report themselves if they feel too fatigued to fly, something experts believe pilots won’t do for fear of retaliation. 

Although this is a step in the right direction, safety experts also voiced their disappointment with the FAA’s rules since they fail to address a phenomenon known as “commuting” pilots. These pilots enter the cockpit after flying long distances from their home bases to get to work. The pilots will have already put in several hours of flight before they even begin their traditional work day, experts argued. A spokesman for the NTSB stated that the board “wanted to see additional focus on the companies’ responsibilities to help manage fatigue risks resulting from commuting pilots.”

ABC News consultant and former Air Force and airline pilot John Nance has also spoken out against the new rules. “They don’t go anywhere near far enough and they bear the earmarks of having listened to the whining of the airline industry,” Nance fumed. “This just ignores about 25 years of research,” he added.

Following the fatal Colgan Air crash near Buffalo, the NTSB discovered that the two pilots who flew the doomed Colgan Air flight had commuted to Newark from Florida and Washington state. The NTSB also found that some 70 percent of Colgan Air pilots commuted to Newark from home bases that were long distances away. As many as 20 percent of those pilots commuted from distances longer than 1,000 miles, said the safety agency. This trend is not just limited to Colgan Air pilots but is an industry-wide problem, safety experts stated.

The FAA’s controversial new rules limit the amount of hours airline pilots can be on duty to between 9 and 14 hours, depending on the amount of time zones crossed and the time of a pilot's first flight. The maximum amount of time includes time spent performing administrative duties and wait time before flights. Airline pilots will also be limited to eight or nine hours of flying time per shift with a minimum rest period of 10 hours in between shifts. Pilots flying through the night will be limited to fewer hours than pilots flying in the day time because the body naturally craves sleep at night.

Cargo carriers, surprisingly, are exempted from the new rules. This exemption seems to contradict the FAA's goal of "one level of safety" for the aviation industry as a whole. Cargo carriers do much of their flying through the night when pilots are naturally more likely to be fatigued. While it is true that cargo planes do not typically carry passengers, a cargo plane crash would be just as dangerous to people on the ground as a passenger plane crash.

Airline carriers have two years to implement the new rules.