The Federal Aviation Administration has missed its August 1 deadline for implementing new rules that would keep fatigued pilots from flying planes, a delay that the families of airplane crash victims blame on the influence of the airline industry.
"It's very disappointing for us and to have these deadlines be missed is a significant setback," said Scott Maurer, who lost his daughter Lorin in the 2009 crash of Colgan flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y. "We get challenged every day by people trying to tear this thing down."
Despite denials from the airline industry, an ABC News investigation found that large numbers of pilots report to duty every day after getting only a few hours of what fatigue experts call "destructive sleep" in crowded crew lounges and so-called "crash pads." Widespread pilot fatigue puts airline passengers at risk, say critics, and may already have cost lives. In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, including the Colgan crash, which killed 50 people.
In 2010, Congress passed a flight safety bill requiring the FAA to make new rules that would combat pilot fatigue. The FAA proposed an increase in the rest period between shifts for pilots, which is currently eight hours, and a decrease in the maximum length of a pilot's workday. Pilots are currently allowed to be on duty for up to 16 hours.
The new rules were to be implemented by August 1, 2011, but the FAA missed its deadline. In a statement chiding the agency for the missed deadlines, the families of Flight 3407 said, "Unfortunately, we also know that at every turn the FAA faces tremendous pushback from stakeholders, particularly the airlines, which would like nothing better than to delay and water down these regulations as much as possible."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., sent a letter to FAA administrator Randy Babbitt urging him to act. He also criticized the industry for resisting rule changes. "I know that there are efforts on the part of industry to weaken these rules by stalling their implementation and undercutting their intent," wrote Schumer. "This is unacceptable."
Schumer told ABC News he believed the FAA had been distracted by the current partial shutdown of the agency due to Congressional Republicans' refusal to reauthorize funding. The shutdown began two weeks ago and has already led to temporary layoffs. "Safety must come first, though," said Schumer, "and I am urging the FAA to expedite the publishing of these regulations immediately. The airline industry, which in a knee-jerk reaction has opposed these sensible regulations from start to finish, should not be allowed to stand in the way of much needed improvements in flight safety."
In a statement, the airline industry's major trade association restated its position that the FAA needed to consider the financial impact before implement a rule change, and also base any rule on scientific research.
"It was our position at the time [of proposed rulemaking] that it would cost a lot of money," said a spokesperson for the Air Transport Association. "We are hoping they will have heeded our concerns and come back with a final rule that is based on science that will ultimately improve safety, which is ongoing work for our industry. We are constantly working on improving safety."
A spokesman for the FAA did not say why the agency had missed its August 1 deadline. "The Federal Aviation Administration is committed to ensuring that airline pilots are fit and rested when they report for duty," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr in an email statement to ABC News. "The FAA is working aggressively to complete a new pilot fatigue rule, as well as separate rules that address pilot qualifications and training."