Nearly three years after 50 people perished in an airplane crash in Buffalo, New York, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a new rule today to combat pilot fatigue, but placed the final responsibility with the pilots to say when they're too tired to fly, and did not address the issue of so-called "commuting" pilots, who fly long distances to get to work before they even enter the cockpit.
Critics, including the federal agency responsible for traveler safety, said the revamped rules don't do enough to ensure passenger safety from errors made by tired pilots.
A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the Buffalo crash and found that commuting pilot fatigue was likely a factor in the deadly incident, told ABC News although the new limits on pilot flight and duty time were a "huge improvement," the board was "disappointed" in how the FAA had "treated the issue of commuting pilots."
"The FAA and industry need to take steps that go beyond providing training, education and guidance on the matter," the spokesperson said. "We wanted to see additional focus on the companies' responsibilities to help manage fatigue risks resulting from commuting pilots."
ABC News consultant John Nance, a former Air Force and airline pilot, said he was "angry" about the new rules and called them "abysmal."
"I'm very distressed over these rules," said Nance, "because they don't go anywhere near far enough and they bear the earmarks of having listened to the whining of the airline industry. We have needed comprehensive change in our duty time controls for fatigue for long time and this just ignores about 25 years of research."
The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, however, emphasized that the burden was on pilots to decide when they were too tired to work.
"While the final rule provides improvement for aviation safety, pilots must take personal responsibility for coming to work rested and fit for duty," Rep. John Mica, R.-Florida, said after the FAA's announcement. "The government cannot put a chocolate on every one of their pillows and tuck them in at night."
Nance said Rep. Mica's comment showed that the congressman did not understand the issue. "Excuse me?" snapped Nance. "This is serious business, Rep Mica. It's not a matter of molly coddling. It's a matter of dealing with the certainty that people who cannot afford to have a hotel room are not going to be able to get rested."
Under what the FAA said was a "sweeping final rule," pilots will be subject to new flight time limits and a mandatory ten-hour rest period between duty time, but the rule did not directly address the problem uncovered in an ABC News investigation of commuting pilots who have to travel from their home bases to duty elsewhere, often getting little sleep in difficult conditions before takeoff.
Rather, the new rules simply say pilots must report themselves unfit for duty to the airlines if they're too exhausted, something aviators told ABC News previously they're wary of doing for fear of reprisals.
"Often times there's a response from the chief pilot, [saying] 'Are you sure?' or 'We're counting on you' and 'You know this flight is set to depart in an hour and half or so, why don't you do that self assessment again, make sure you really are too fatigued?'" Josh Verde, a former Express Jet pilot, said today. "I think a pilot who consistently calls in fatigued could be faced with disciplinary action later on. Without actual protect by FAA in the rules for pilots who call in fatigued, you're going to see that at airlines across the country."
An ABC News investigation in February revealed commuting pilots across the country pilots were struggling just to get sleep in crew lounges and so-called "crash pads" before taking commercial aircraft into the skies, sometimes with hundreds of passengers aboard. Undercover video of crew lounges taken by pilots and provided to ABC News during the investigation showed pilots asleep overnight in chairs and on sofas. Current and former pilots described missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep mid-flight.
The new rules also do not specifically address the use of crash pads and sleep in crew lounges, which was already contrary to airline rules. At the time of ABC News' investigation, then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said industry representatives told him it "simply isn't going on."
In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the NTSB.
Former Continental Express pilot Josh Reikes told ABC News at the time of the investigation that one captain warned him, "Don't you ever let me wake up and find you sleeping."
One of the most vocal groups pushing for new rules are the family members of some of the 50 victims of the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo. In that case, the pilot of the plane, who commuted to his Newark base from Florida, had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark airport, raising concerns about the role of fatigue with safety investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board. The co-pilot had commuted to work on overnight flights from Seattle and also tried to sleep in the crew lounge, unable to afford a hotel room. Later, internal Colgan emails reportedly raised questions about the pilot's training and capabilities.
"We did recognize that they were likely impaired by fatigue," Deborah Hersman, Chairman of the NTSB, said after the NTSB's initial investigation.
The NTSB also found that about 70 percent of the Colgan Air pilots based at Newark were commuters, many coming from long distances to work. Approximately 20 percent commuted from more than 1,000 miles away.
Scott Maurer, who lost his 30-year-old daughter Lorin in the Buffalo crash, told ABC News today he and the other victims' families are "frustrated" with the new FAA rule.
"The families are frustrated that commuting has not been an issue that has been addressed from a regulatory standpoint at this time," Maurer said. "We requested that this is an item that is brought back up on their agenda and are awaiting some response to that."
The FAA missed two deadlines for implementing the new rules before today's announcement and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D.-New York, previously said the airline industry was possibly stalling them on purpose. A representative for Airlines for America, the major trade group for airlines formerly known as the Air Transport Association, told ABC News earlier this month, "We believe the rules need to be changed and [we] continue to advocate for rules that are based on science and are proven to improve safety."
According to the FAA, the new rules are expected to cost the aviation industry nearly $300 million.
"We made a promise to the traveling public that we would do everything possible to make sure pilots are rested when they get in the cockpit. This new rule raises the safety bar to prevent fatigue," Transportation Secretary LaHood said today.