FAA Proposes New Rules to Tackle Pilot Fatigue

Rules would add an extra hour of sleep for pilots between work days.

ByABC News
September 10, 2010, 11:21 AM

Sept. 10, 2010 — -- Proposed regulations for commercial airline pilots call for an additional hour of rest among other measures aimed at combating dangerous pilot fatigue.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Randy Babbitt of the Federal Aviation Administration unveiled the proposal this afternoon.

"This proposal is a significant enhancement for aviation safety," LaHood said. "Both pilots and passengers will benefit from these proposed rules that will continue to ensure the safety of our nation's air transportation system."

More than 700 million passengers and pilots travel the nation's airways each year, LaHood said.

The rules, still months away from being final, would make it mandatory for pilots to have nine hours of rest between work days, compared with eight now. The extra hour of rest reduces a pilot's maximum shift to 15 hours.

Pilots have complained for years that eight hours of rest isn't enough. Along with implementing more time off between shifts, some pilots would fly fewer hours while others would fly longer hours. The decision on who flies more and who flies less would be based on the time of day, time zones and the likelihood of a pilot's being able to sleep.

The proposed regulations would also give pilots the right to decline an assignment, without penalty, if they are fatigued.

Since 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended updating the rules to reflect fatigue research. Experts have told the safety board that fatigue can degrade an individual's performance in much the same way as alcohol. Tired pilots sometimes lose "situational awareness" and respond slowly to events.

LaHood said that the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 in February 2009 spurred the need for stricter regulations against cockpit fatigue.

The crash killed all 49 people on board and one person on the ground when the plane slammed into a house in Buffalo, N.Y. The safety board ruled that pilot error was one of the chief causes of the crash. An investigation into the crash revealed that pilot fatigue was an issue.

Both the pilot and the first officer commuted long distances to get to work. In the cockpit that night were Capt. Marvin Renslow and first officer Rebecca Shaw. Both were based in Newark, N.J., for Colgan Air, but Renslow commuted from his home in Florida and Shaw from Washington State.

"The FAA has been terrified to get into this question of what happens to pilots off duty, but that is the responsibility of the airline and if they're paying poverty wages, they have a responsibility to know what the response is going to be, that is, doing second jobs ... things of this nature," ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said on "Good Morning America" in February.