By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Two days after The Washington Post published an examination of the living conditions endured by some pilots for regional airlines, Federal Aviation Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said he will "close the gap" if a government rulemaking committee fails to develop regulations aimed at curbing pilot fatigue.
"We know too much," Babbitt said Wednesday in an address to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). "We have too much science in hand. We know too much about fatigue."
Babbitt announced the creation of the rulemaking committee in June after congressional hearings into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12 near Buffalo. All 49 people aboard and one person on the ground were killed when the plane plunged into a house. Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that fatigue might have been a factor.
The FAA's so-called flight-time, duty-time and rest rules seek to limit the maximum number of hours a pilot can fly or be on duty and set a minimum number of rest hours between shifts. Babbitt said the current standards date to the "propeller era" of the industry.
The Post published a report Tuesday that described how some regional pilots, some of whom earn as little as $20,000 a year, share "crash pads" near their duty stations to save money and have a place to rest between flights.
Pilot unions and airline groups have battled at least since the mid-1990s over attempts to rewrite regulations. FAA officials have been reluctant to move forward without consensus.
"They will either come to a potential agreement, or we will take whatever they have as close as they got and we will close the gap -- and we will have a rule," Babbitt said of the current committee, which has a Sept. 1 deadline.
The 18-member panel is made up of representatives from unions, including ALPA; airline industry groups; and FAA officials. Changes have to be approved by the Department of Transportation and the Office of Management and Budget. Babbitt said he would ask both entities to accelerate their reviews.
Of particular concern to pilots is the fatiguing effects of late-night and overnight flying. Airlines have challenged recent efforts pursuing rule changes in federal court.
Babbitt also said he hopes that new rules will address fatigue-related complaints of regional pilots who deal with the tiring effects of multiple takeoffs and landings.