Aug. 2, 2011 -- 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."
New Rules Would Not Address Commuting
While the law passed by Congress last summer addressed pilot work schedules, it did not address "commuting," another workplace issue that critics say contributes to pilot fatigue. "Commuting" is an industry-wide system in which crew members, especially those working for regional feeder airlines, live far from the "hub" airports where they are based and commute to the hubs by air in order to work a shift. Crew members commute, sometimes from homes more than 1,000 miles away, because of annual starting salaries as low as $17,000, and because of the cost of living in large hub cities.
Pilots told ABC News in February that commuting can be treacherous when pilots try to grab what sleep they can in crash pads and airline crew rooms. The NTSB investigation into the crash of Colgan flight 3407 found that both pilots were commuters. 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 NTSB safety investigators.
The 24-year-old co-pilot had commuted across the country, hitching rides on FedEx planes overnight from Seattle to get to her Newark, New Jersey base the day of her flight. Neither pilot even had a chance to sleep in a hot bunk at a "crash pad," where up to two dozen other pilots or crew members sleep after commuting into their base for duty.
Congress did ask the National Research Council, a non-profit national scientific research group, to complete a study on the issue. When researchers asked airlines for data on commuting patterns and practices, however, dozens of airlines failed to respond. The NRC report concluded that pilot commutes could contribute to fatigue that may endanger passengers, but that it had not been able to gather "enough data to support strict regulation." The study also concluded that the government should fund another study to determine how well pilots with long commutes sleep.
Meanwhile, the flight 3407 families wait for the FAA to implement new rules on pilot work schedules, and continue to apply pressure where they can. The families meet regularly with officials at the FAA, said Scott Maurer.
"The FAA has to keep the ball rolling forward," said Maurer. "They're behind on a lot of things."