Quick, a show of hands: How many travelers think airplane pilots - some with hundreds of lives in their hands - should get enough sleep to fly safely before they take off? No one? Nah, I didn't think so. Me neither.
I think we can agree that pilots should be rested. Disagreement comes about on what 'rested' means, with airlines traditionally pushing pilots hard to keep working and pilots pushing back, saying they are tired, need more rest between flights and shorter working days. Recently, this long-running debate has taken place against the frightening backdrop of a fatal Colgan Air regional commuter jet near Buffalo, New York, in February 2009 that killed 50 people. Federal Aviation Administration investigators said pilot fatigue played an important role in the crash.
Yesterday - nearly three years after that terrible accident - the FAA (www.faa.gov) issued changes to work rules for U.S. airline passenger pilots that had last been overhauled in the mid-1980s. Some rules date back to the 1960s. A good deal more is known now about the effects of sleep deprivation and the challenges posed by night flying, which is when UPS, FedEx and other cargo carriers do a lot of their flying. Controversially, the new FAA rules exempt cargo carriers, over the objections of cargo plane pilots.
It's taken nearly three years following the Buffalo crash to hammer out new rules primariy because airlines argued that stiffer regulations will cause scheduling problems and the subsequent operational changes would cost money. The FAA weakened the new rules in response, reducing the FAA's projections of additional costs to $297 million USD over 10 years, down from an earlier estimate of $2 billion USD.
The airlines have two years to implement the changes. Put that together with the nearly three years that have gone by since the crash of the Colgan Air jet - operating as a Continental Connection flight - and the delay will reach five years. That's a real sense of urgency for you.
As reported by the Associated Press in today's Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) "Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America trade association, said that the group is reviewing the new requirements. "We support changes to the rule that are science-based and that will improve safety,' she wrote in an e-mail.''
For those who track such things, Airlines for America, or A4A, is the new name of the U.S. trade association that used to be known as the Air Transport Association (www.airlines.org).
Just what are the rules changes?
According to a Reuters report published 22 December on www.airwise.com, "The policy ... would reduce the maximum work day from 16 hours to 14 hours per day. Pilots would get at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, a 25 percent increase over current policy.
"The rule also sets a 10-hour minimum rest period prior to flight duty, a two-hour increase over the old rule.
"The FAA imposed a 'fitness for duty' standard on pilots, who would have to certify before starting work that they are well-rested.''
According to media reports, the captain of the doomed Colgan Air flight logged onto a computer in the wee hours in an airport crew lounge - he apparently didn't get any sleep the night before. The first office flew overnight in a cockpit jumpseat to Newark, N.J. from Seattle, so she could get to work. Both pilots could be heard yawning on audio tapes recovered by investigators.
The AP noted in a line that is moving and chilling in equal parts: "Families of the dead have lobbied relentlessly for more stringent regulations to fight pilot fatigue.''