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New Airline Pilot Rules Proposed

September 11, 2010

A US government proposal on Friday is pushing for mandatory measures for airlines to give pilots longer rest periods and scale back duty time in an effort to combat cockpit fatigue.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposal could force airlines to hire more pilots, change flight schedules and revamp union work rules.

Major airline companies are quite sensitive to any mandate that would raise costs just as their finances are improving following an economic downturn.

Unionized pilots with many carriers have been seeking more flexible work schedules and more hiring of pilots.

Big carriers, such as Delta Airlines and United Airlines, employ thousands of pilots. The impact of a major change would depend on a carrier’s internal policies on fatigue.

The FAA regulation would apply to operations at US regional carriers as well, including Delta’s Comair affiliate and Pinnacle Airlines Inc’s Colgan Air.

Airlines warned that if the changes become mandatory and are too burdensome, carriers could end up reducing capacity to keep costs in line.

Industry trade group, the Air Transport Association, said in a statement that it was looking into the FAA proposal and would support any new fatigue standards as long as they were scientifically “crafted to truly improve safety.”

The FAA has proposed a nine-hour minimum rest period before pilots take flight, giving them adequate sleeping time. That is a one-hour increase over the current rules.

The FAA is also proposing new limits on the amount of time a pilot can be on duty. Under new regulations, pilots would have to have 30 consecutive hours free from duty weekly, a 25 percent increase over the current rules.

The FAA has tried to regulate pilot rest rules in the mid-1990s, but regulators never finished the work due to shifting agency priorities, political wrangling and unresolved technical questions on how to put it into effect.

The FAA has been under pressure from families of victims of a recent crash — in which a Bombardier DHC-8-400 plunged into a snow-covered neighborhood as it neared Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009, killing 49 people — to look into pilot and crew schedules.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted as part of its investigation that pilots working for small carriers can have long commutes to work, experience hectic and long days, and use crew lounges to take short naps during breaks to catch up on sleep. These smaller airlines perform a substantial amount of short-haul flights for the big affiliates.

If new regulations pass, it would give airlines some flexibility on scheduling, considering that airline operations vary, including aircraft type, routes, and staffing.

The proposal is subject to public comment for a 60-day period.

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