Key changes in rules for passenger plane pilots

More than two years after pilot fatigue was a factor in a crash near Buffalo that killed 50people, the federal government on Wednesday mandated that passenger plane pilots sleep eight hours a day and get a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts in the cockpit.

“The single worst day for me in this job was Feb. 12, 2009, with the crash of Colgan Air 3407,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in announcing the sleep requirements. “We tried to address the problem [to ensure] that pilots are well trained and well rested.”

Under the rules, which will be phased in over two years, pilots also would be required to have 30 consecutive hours off every week, a 35 percent increase. The final rules had two key changes from what was proposed more than a year ago. The number of mandatory hours off was increased from nine; and pilots of cargo planes were excluded, to the dismay of some stakeholders.

The crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 came after one cockpit crew member had slept in an airport lounge and the other had taken an overnight cross-country flight to meet the plane. Investigators said they did the exact opposite of what was called for when the plane lost speed and stalled.

Making safety regulations that affect the bottom line of one of the nation’s biggest industries — the airplanes that carry passengers and cargo — has taken 25 years of politically charged discussion involving the White House, Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines, cargo carriers and pilot unions.

“While this is not a perfect rule, it is a huge improvement over the status quo for large passenger-carrying operations,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman.

The ruling received bipartisan applause on Capitol Hill.

“This is a day that will go down in aviation safety history,” said Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), ranking Democrat on the House aviation committee. “This process is not over, as the rule must be implemented, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress, the Colgan families and industry stakeholders to ensure that this process is completed.”

Costello conducted hearings that focused on pilot fatigue after the 2009 Colgan crash.

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

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the aviation subcommittee, gave credit to “the hard work by the families of Colgan Air flight 3407 passengers” in pressing for the changes.

“It’s a major step forward in the safety of the flying public,” said Ken Mellett of McLean, whose 34-year-old son, Coleman, was aboard the Colgan flight. He said the new rule, “as it relates to fatigue . . . went a long way.”

Mellett also urged the FAA to implement other related safety provisions on training and pilot certification that were approved by Congress last year.

The largest union of pilots, which has worked with the FAA in formulating the rules, said it was happy with the results.

“For decades, [the Air Line Pilots Association] has fought for regulations that are based on modern science,” said Lee Moak, the association’s president.

Moak lamented, however, that “cargo operations are being held to a lesser standard.” Hersman also said she was disappointed that cargo plane pilots are not subject to the new sleep requirements.

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

United Parcel Service, one of the major companies whose payload is pallets of packages, disagreed with Hersman and Moak.

UPS spokeswoman Kara Ross said the new rules “appropriately recognized that cargo and passenger operations require different fatigue mitigation measures.” She said UPS pilots “meet a much higher standard and far exceed the current U.S. rest regulations.”

“This is a day that will go down in aviation safety history.”

Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), ranking Democrat on the House aviation committee

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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