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New rules for pilots are given wide praise; Families of 3407 hailed for fatigue safeguards

New rules aimed at combating pilot fatigue won widespread praise Wednesday from the Families of Continental Flight 3407, other safety advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

While expressing disappointment that the Federal Aviation Administration's new fatigue regulations won't cover pilots at cargo carriers, the families and others involved in their long fight for the air safety reform said that what the FAA finally released was a set of strong standards that will make the skies much safer.

"They are much more rigorous than the current rules," said Susan Bourque of East Aurora, whose sister Beverly Eckert, a 9/1 1 activist, was killed in the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, which claimed 50 lives. "This will go a long way toward making a reality of the one level of safety between regional airlines and the major carriers, which is what we've been fighting for."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in announcing the rules, credited the Families of Continental Flight 3407.

"These families, with unimaginable heartbreak, turned that into a powerful commitment to save the lives of others," LaHood said. "They pushed us to make progress, the progress we're making today. This rule really should be named in honor of the families" and the Flight 3407 victims.

Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah A.P. Hersman, said the new standard, while not perfect, "is a huge improvement over the status quo for large passenger-carrying operations."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "It's much stronger than we ever expected, given that the airline industry pushed back so hard" against the tougher regulations.

The new rules will be published in the Federal Register later this week, and airlines are being given two years to implement them. FAA officials said the airlines and their pilot unions need that time to adjust flight work schedules.

Under the new rules, the length of a passenger airline pilot's workday has a legal limit. Depending on how many flights a pilot is scheduled to fly and what time his or her work shift starts, the maximum work day can be anywhere from nine to 14 hours.

In addition, pilots will be able to fly no more than eight or nine of those hours, depending on what time the pilot starts the workday.

Perhaps most importantly, pilots will now be required to get 10 hours of rest from the time they finish one shift until the time they begin another. Designed to guarantee that pilots will get eight hours of sleep, the new rules replace an old standard of eight hours and a proposed standard that guaranteed them only nine hours off between the time of their last landing and the next day's first takeoff.

The distinction is important because pilots often have more work to do before a plane takes off and after it lands, meaning that the proposed nine-hour rest period would have often been far shorter, said John Kausner of Clarence, whose daughter, Ellyce, was killed in the crash of Flight 3407.

In addition, the new rules require pilots to sign a statement every time they enter a plane saying they are fit for duty. If they are not, the airline must make sure the fatigued pilot does not operate that flight.

"That's never been done before," Kausner noted. "Before it was always just: 'Show up and assume I'm OK.' "

The FAA will audit the airlines to make sure they are complying with the new rules, and can issue fines in case of violations.

The agency estimated that the new rules will prevent 1.5 fatal plane crashes over 10 years, and prevent an average of six deaths per year over that time span.

"This is an important step forward for airline safety that will help us save lives," said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The new standards replace a set of rules dating back more than 25 years. And for the first time, the FAA's rules aimed at controlling pilot fatigue are based on scientific research on sleep patterns and required rest.

"It is a win-win for pilots and management," William R. Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, said of the new regulations. "The old rules were dangerously outdated and had no basis in the scientific understanding of fatigue."

LaHood and Michael P. Huerta, acting administrator of the FAA, unveiled the finalized rules 15 months after they proposed a set of standards that prompted a vehement response from the aviation industry.

The airlines said the proposed rules would cost them $2 billion a year. But on Wednesday, the FAA said the revised rules will cost the airline industry $297 million but will result in benefits of between $247 million and $470 million over a decade.

Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America trade association, said the group is reviewing the new rules. "As we have said previously, we support changes to the rule that are science-based and that will improve safety," she wrote in an email to the Associated Press.

The final rules announced Wednesday and the original proposal are similar in many respects, but they also include some key cost-saving differences.

The FAA eliminated a costly requirement that airlines give detailed reports about their compliance with the new pilot scheduling guidelines. Now airlines will only have to report when they violate the rules.

The final rules also give airlines more flexibility if unforeseen circumstances, such as bad weather, wreak havoc with pilot schedules.

Perhaps most importantly, the final rules exempt cargo carriers, which had lobbied hard against the changes, saying they would be far too expensive.

In the end, the FAA agreed.

"This rule does not apply to cargo operations because it would have been too costly to implement compared to the benefits generated in this portion of the industry," Huerta said.

LaHood said he would meet with top officials from the cargo carriers to urge them to voluntarily adhere to the new standards, which, the FAA projected, would cost the cargo industry $214 million.

The exemption for the cargo carriers -- which often fly long-haul overnight flights when fatigue is most likely -- drew criticism from the Air Line Pilots Association, the safety board and the Flight 3407 families.

"While the new rule brings much-needed science-based improvements in flight and duty regulations, ALPA is disappointed that cargo operations are being held to a lesser standard," said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the largest pilots union.

Hersman, of the safety board, said she was "extremely disappointed" at the exemption.

"A tired pilot is a tired pilot, whether there are 10 paying customers on board or 100, whether the payload is passengers or pallets," she said.

Bourque, of the families group, said she was concerned that the airline industry's victory in exempting cargo carriers from the regulations would embolden the industry to fight hard against ongoing efforts to draw up new rules on pilot training and other matters important to aviation safety.

"Our grave concern is what this means for future rule-makings," she said.

Then again, both she and Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, said that what's most important is the strength of the new rules governing passenger airline pilots.

"There was considerable concern that all the reforms could have been killed because of the cargo issue," Hochul said.

The families have pushed for the new rules on fatigue because neither of the Flight 3407 pilots had a full night of bed rest before the crash, which federal investigators blamed on pilot error.

In fact, the Flight 3407 co-pilot flew on a connecting red-eye flight from her Seattle home to Newark, N.J., where Flight 3407 originated, the night before the doomed flight.

Neither the FAA's first proposed fatigue rules nor the final version directly address the issue of pilots commuting long distances to their duty station, leaving that issue up to the pilots to navigate for themselves.

"While the final rule provides improvement for aviation safety, pilots must take personal responsibility for coming to work rested and fit for duty," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "The government cannot put a chocolate on every one of their pillows and tuck them in at night."

But what the government has done, LaHood said, is publish a rule that "gives pilots enough time to get the rest they really need."

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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FAA's new pilot fatigue rules

*Passenger airline pilots would get a minimum 10-hour rest period between work shifts, up from nine hours in an earlier proposal and as little as eight under rules that have been in place for decades.

*For the first time, the government has put a limit on the length of a pilot's workday. A pilot's work shift could not exceed 14 hours, and could be limited to as little as nine hours for work shifts that begin between midnight and 4 a.m. The limits vary based on research on sleep patterns and fatigue.

*The maximum flight time during each work shift would be nine hours between 5 a.m and 8 p.m., and eight hours at other times. Currently, the limit is eight hours at all times.

*Pilots would have to get at least 30 consecutive hours off duty every week, a 25 percent increase over the current standard.

*Both pilots and airlines will be responsible for ensuring that pilots are fit for duty. Pilots will have to sign a statement saying they are fit for duty before each flight, and if they are not, the airline must remove them from the flight.