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Rules to tackle pilot fatigue proposed, costs to rise by USD2bn


After decades of attempting to change aviation flight and duty time rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long-awaited, latest Notice of Proposed Rulemaking based on the Sept-2009 recommendations of an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The committee found the job so complex that it not only produced recommendations but also included separate proposals produced by labour as well as cargo, commercial and charter airlines. Administrator Randy Babbitt said all those involved in the development of the proposed rule came to “near unanimous” consent.

The agency suggests the new rule would yield between USD6 billion and USD8 billion in benefits balanced against nearly USD2 billion in costs over 10 years. The industry expected to produce different estimates since the FAA is known to low-ball regulatory impacts. On the other hand, industry is known to high-ball estimates meaning the actual costs are somewhere in between. The industry over-compensated for the post-911 security rules only to do an about face when Congress tried to set fees charged to passengers and airlines to defray the new security costs. The industry managed to bring those fees down before they were implemented.

A snapshot reveals increases in both rest and hours free from duty and gives airlines the flexibility to integrate fatigue science into their scheduling practices.

FAA estimates of costs/benefits of provisions in this rule


Nominal Costs (mill)

PV Costs (mill)

Total Costs (over 10







PV Benefits

$6.0 million VSL



$8.4 million VSL



The reaction was swift with the Air Transport Association and the Regional Airline Association hailing the publication of the rule. However, they stopped short of commenting on the rule itself saying they are studying it.

“RAA and its member airlines have been active leaders in the ARC since it began, and support the approach that would allow pilots more rest and give airlines the flexibility to integrate fatigue science into their scheduling practices,” said the organisation. “In fact, RAA’s pro-active Strategic Safety Initiative launched in June, 2009 has studied and recommended many actions responding to these challenges.”


The rule would shave three hours from a pilot’s work day, limiting it to 13 but could slide to nine hours at night depending on how much time there is between the last flight and first flight the next day as well as the number of segments scheduled. Instead of 100 hours every 30 days, they would be limited to 100 every 28 days. Rest time would be increased to nine hours from eight, while the time pilots must be free from duty is increased from 24 to 30, an increase of 25%.

Current versus proposed flight time limits, duty time limits and rest time requirements

The impact will be most keenly felt by smaller operators whose pilots fly numerous legs each day since many of the flight/duty time provisions are already part of mainline pilot contracts. The result could force the hiring of more pilots and change schedules but it could also mean further cutbacks in schedules in order to achieve cost cutting goals that are already in play. The new rules also come at a time when most mainline carriers are negotiating new pilot contracts which could need to be changed should all the provisions of this rule become part of the final rule.

The comment period is 60 days and, according to Congressional mandate, a final rule must be published by 1-Aug-2011, a year after President Obama signed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 in law.

Fatigue science

As the first rulemaking based on fatigue science, it may have a better chance of finally accomplishing what has been needed for a long time. The agency’s latest attempt dates back to 1992 when its goal was to clarify the hundreds of interpretations resulting from letters sent over time. But the National Transportation Safety Board’s first fatigue recommendation dates to 1972. Current rules date to 1938 but were updated in 1958, according to the NTSB. They were later updated in 1985 resulting in a cobbled-together product that no one liked.

In addition to basing rules on fatigue science, the new proposal is designed to account for the differing fatigue created by global operations flying over multiple time zones, short-leg, multi-leg and long-haul flights. It also addresses the impact of technology which allows for longer flights.

"All flights are not created equal," Babbitt said during a press conference. "There's a big difference in flying one line leg, like to Narita, and flying 10 short jumps and never leaving the state of Michigan."

The rulemaking went further. “In this environment, a variety of factors can affect pilot alertness, judgment and performance,” said the agency. “Those factors include: the time of day of a flight; day-night or night-day transitions; daytime sleep periods; time off between consecutive work periods; the number of takeoffs and landings in a given time period; the impact of time zone changes on circadian rhythms; early start times; and commuting.”

Given the controversy surrounding commuting in the aftermath of the Colgan accident, the proposal is also considering including commuter time when determining rest periods and incorporating the pilots home base into the flight and duty time rules. It is seeking comment on strategies to address these issues.

“While FAA rules already state that a pilot must be fit for duty, the FAA is proposing to strengthen that requirement,” said the agency. “Under the proposal, an air carrier would not be able to assign (and, a pilot would not be able to accept) an assignment if the pilot is too fatigued. In addition, a company employee who suspects a pilot of being too fatigued to perform his or her duties during flight would be able to report that information to the air carrier, so that the air carrier could make a determination of whether or not the pilot is too fatigued to fly.

“I know first-hand that fighting fatigue is a serious issue, and it is the joint responsibility of both the airline and the pilot,” said Babbitt, a former commercial pilot. “After years of debate, the aviation community is moving forward to give pilots the tools they need to manage fatigue and fly safely.”

Key differences

The proposed rule eliminates the differing rules governing domestic, international and unscheduled flights and set different requirements for pilots based on the time of day and number of scheduled segments, as well as time zones, type of flights, and likelihood that a pilot is able to sleep under different circumstances. However, it does not apply to Part 135 operators which will not sit well with the NTSB which is seeking the same safety standards whether it is a medical or commercial flight. However, FAA left room for addressing Part 135 in the future.

The National Air Transportation Association, which represents on-demand Part 125/Part 135 operators, said: “While the association supports the FAA’s decision to pursue separate rulemaking initiatives for Parts 121 and 135, NATA remains committed to the need for a revision of the Part 135 crew member regulations related to flight hours, duty periods and rest requirements.”

However, it criticised the agency saying it has yet to respond with feedback or an NPRM to the work completed several years ago by NATA, other aviation trade organisations, numerous aircraft operators and FAA staff, all of whom “invested substantial time and effort to provide the agency with a comprehensive proposal creating a new regulatory system for on-demand operators that addresses concerns about pilot fatigue”.

The new rule also possesses a circadian component for reducing flight/duty time when “when the pilot is operating in his or her window of circadian low”. It also discusses fatigue mitigation as the joint responsibility of the airline and the pilot, something that became controversial in the wake of Colgan when pilots complained airlines retaliated if they called in fatigued. The rule prohibits airlines from penalising pilots who decline an assignment on the basis of fatigue. Finally, airlines can develop their own congressionally mandated Fatigue Risk Management Plans designed to reduce fatigue risk and improve alertness. These plans must also include fatigue education and awareness and must be approved by the FAA.

Flight time limits hours weekly, monthly and annually. Currently, pilots flying domestically are limited to 30 hours of flight time in any seven consecutive days which would now be reduced to 28 days under the new rule. Those flying international operations are limited to 32 hours in seven consecutive days, and there is no seven-consecutive-day limit for supplemental operations.

It also defines “flight duty” as the period of time when a pilot reports for duty with the intention of flying an aircraft, operating a simulator or operating a flight training device. A pilot’s entire duty period can include flight duty and other tasks that do not involve flight time, such as record keeping and ground training, an important distinction given pilot complaints that such activity eats into rest time. Congress recently mandated that all air carriers have a Fatigue Risk Management Plan (FRMP). Each carrier will be able to develop its own set of policies and procedures to reduce the risks of pilot fatigue and improve alertness. In tandem with the NPRM, the FAA issues guidance to help airlines develop their fatigue mitigation plans.

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