US Boosts Pilot Rest, Exempts Cargo Carriers

December 21, 2011

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Passenger airline pilots would work fewer hours and get longer breaks between shifts under revised US aviation regulations spurred by a crash that killed 50 people nearly three years ago.

The Federal Aviation Administration rule announced on Wednesday aims to keep flight crews as alert as possible and reduce mistakes, but was delayed for years by airline opposition over cost and scheduling concerns.

"This new rule gives pilots enough time to get the rest they really need," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The policy, which was last updated in the mid-1980s, 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.

Airlines have two years to comply with the new standard.

The rule would cost airlines an estimated USD$297 million over 10 years, nearly USD$1 billion less than an estimate included in a 2010 FAA proposal.

Airlines strongly pressured regulators to change certain provisions due to cost concerns, and the measure spent extended time under review by the White House budget office. The final measure wound up exempting cargo carriers and dropping certain reporting requirements.

"We probably made as good an effort as we could possibly make," LaHood said, adding that the agency "listened to everybody" and addressed the major issues to create what he called a strong rule.

The biggest airlines did not immediately endorse the policy, saying they would review the rule first.

"As we have said previously, we support changes to the rule that are science-based and that will improve safety," the industry's top trade group in Washington said in a statement.

The Air Line Pilots Association said it, too, was reviewing the document. That group, which represents pilots at United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and several regional carriers opposed the exemption for cargo airlines, including FedEx and UPS.

Scott Stratton, the ALPA unit chairman at FedEx, issued a strongly worded statement critical of the "carve out" for cargo operators, saying that business and political interests prevailed.

"Safety lost this round, but the battle is not over," Stratton said in a letter to members.

LaHood said he planned to meet cargo chief executives in January and ask them to voluntarily adopt the new standards. The FAA said cargo airlines have taken steps on their own to address fatigue.

The fatigue rule change was ordered by Congress following the crash of a Colgan Air commuter flight near Buffalo in February of 2009 that killed 50 people. While investigators did not blame the crash on fatigue, they did say the crew of the plane, operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, was probably overtired during the late night flight from Newark.

"While this is not a perfect rule, it's a huge improvement over the status quo," said Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the Colgan crash.

Scott Maurer, whose daughter, Lorin, was a passenger on the ill-fated Flight 3407, is hopeful the changes will result in safer scheduling practices, especially for regional carriers like Colgan.

Maurer said it was unfortunate that it took a crash to get a new rule written.

"But since we were dealt that deck of cards, it's good to know something good has come from this tragedy," he said.