U.S. proposes new rest rules for airline pilots

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – Airlines would be required to give pilots longer rest periods and scale back duty time under a U.S. government proposal on Friday aimed at combating fatigue in the cockpit.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) changes, if finalized, could force airlines to hire more pilots, change flight schedules, and revamp negotiated union work rules.

Major carriers are very sensitive to any mandate that would raise costs just as their finances are improving following a recession-driven downturn.

Unionized pilots at several carriers have been pushing for more flexible work schedules and more hiring.

Big carriers like Delta Air Lines, UAL Inc’s United Airlines and Continental Airlines each employ thousands of pilots. The impact of any change would depend on a carrier’s internal policies on fatigue.

The FAA regulation also would apply to operations at U.S. regional carriers, such as Delta’s Comair affiliate and Pinnacle Airlines Inc’s Colgan Air.

Airlines have warned that if the regulations, which were widely expected, are too onerous, carriers could wind up reducing capacity to keep costs in line.

The industry’s leading trade group, the Air Transport Association, said in a statement that it was evaluating the FAA proposal and would support new fatigue standards if they were scientifically based and “crafted to truly improve safety.”

MINIMUM REST PERIODS

Under pressure from families of the victims of a Colgan crash last year in New York that killed 49 people and raised questions about crew scheduling, Congress required new efforts on pilot fatigue and training this summer.

The FAA proposed a nine-hour minimum rest period prior to flying, geared toward ensuring adequate sleep. That would be a one-hour increase over current rules.

To prevent fatigue over weekly and monthly schedules, the FAA proposed new limits on the amount of time a pilot can be on duty. For instance, pilots must receive at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty weekly, a 25 percent increase over current rules.

The FAA, which accelerated work on the fatigue measure earlier this year under its administrator and former pilot, Randy Babbitt, first proposed updating pilot rest rules in the mid-1990s. But regulators never finished the work due to shifting agency priorities, political wrangling and unresolved technical questions on how to proceed.

The Colgan crash, in which a Bombardier DHC-8-400 plunged into a snow-covered neighborhood as it neared Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009, exposed serious questions about pilot training.

The National Transportation Safety Board noted as part of its investigation that pilots for smaller carriers can commute lengthy distances to work, experience hectic and long days, and use crew lounges to catch up on their sleep during breaks.

These smaller airlines perform a substantial amount of short-haul flying for their big affiliates.

The FAA proposal says it is unreasonable to assume that a pilot is resting while commuting, and that airlines would be required to arrange adequate rest periods outside of commuting hours.

The new rule would give airlines some flexibility on scheduling, considering that airline operations vary, including aircraft type, routes, and staffing.

The proposal is subject to a 60-day public comment period.

(Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

U.S. proposes new rest rules for airline pilots