Despite lofty promises made by all stakeholders earlier this year in the wake of the February 12 Colgan Air accident in Buffalo, new rules to combat pilot fatigue will be delayed, according to the Federal Aviation Administration - which raised the hackles of members of the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing on Tuesday. Promised by year end, the new rule will come out during the first quarter of 2010, said FAA during the hearing.
Long time industry observers doubted all the lofty rhetoric from airlines, pilot unions and airline associations as revelations about pilot flight and duty time came out of the National Transportation Safety Board hearings into the Colgan accident as well as the simultaneous Senate hearings last spring. Pilot flight and duty time is one of the most intractable issues the industry faces and promises to work together to finally resolve the issue made good headlines but bad practicality.
While identifying commuting as a possible industry-wide problem, the new rule would continue to allow commuting on red-eye flights which shocked the public when they heard both the pilot and co-pilot commuted long distances to get their Newark to Buffalo flight. The co-pilot commuted overnight from Seattle while the captain commuted from Florida catching nap in the crew lounge before their flight despite company prohibitions against the practice.
"What I don't quite understand is that when we finish this whole process, nothing will have changed with respect to the circumstances that existed in that cockpit regarding fatigue," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-ND, who chairs the committee and who has been instrumental in pushing for increased safety rules for regional airlines.
Associate Administrator Peggy Gilligan agreed fatigue resulting from commuting is a risk but indicated that, instead of a rule, the issue could be addressed in guidance or training materials. “We agree with you that it is a risk factor that must be addressed," she said.
Apparently, the issue was too hot for the committee that began drawing up new rules earlier this year preferring instead to view that as a pilot responsibility. Witnesses, including Flight Safety Foundation President William Voss and Air Line Pilots Association President John Prater indicated it is a sticky subject. Prater indicated he’s known pilots to have five bases in a single year making it more than a lifestyle choice.
Government and industry have been trying to modernize the flight/duty time rules to reflect the science done in the last two decades so that rules can be based on science rather than practices dating back decades. Proposals have included limiting actual daily flying time from eight to seven hours and duty time from 15 to nine, especially for regional airline pilots who have multiple takeoffs and landings per day in much more hostile operating environments than their major-carrier counterparts.
Industry players are also addressing training rules to require use of advanced simulators for regional airline crew training. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has also been pushing for improved professionalism in the U.S. pilot corps.
The agency is aiming at completing a draft in January before being forwarded to other agencies for review. Despite industry efforts and NASA research indicating controlled napping on long-haul flights mitigates fatigue, the agency is likely to reject making that part of any new rule.
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