Aviation officials criticized for delay on pilot fatigue rules

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Senate panel criticized senior aviation officials in the Obama administration Tuesday for delaying long-awaited federal rules designed to combat pilot fatigue.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) reacted strongly to testimony from Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, who said fatigue rules would be delayed by a month. She said the agency needed more time to analyze changes.

Gilligan described the FAA's rulemaking process as "difficult and complicated," drawing a rebuke from Dorgan, who said lawmakers were "just out of patience here."

"I have not meant to hector you, but I do intend to in the future," Dorgan told Gilligan during the hearing. "It is essential to consider these things that are urgent. It's essential after all of these years, all of these many years and lives. I'm going to keep pushing."

Additionally, Snowe and other senators expressed concern that new rules might not crack down on excessive commuting by pilots. Some pilots travel hundreds of miles by air before starting their workday.

Earlier this year, FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt pledged to unveil revised rules by the end of December. Lawmakers renewed calls for updated fatigue rules after a Continental Airlines commuter flight crash killed 50 people near Buffalo in February. Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that the pilots might have suffered from fatigue, although a probe into the accident is ongoing.

Sleepy and overworked pilots have been linked to 20 air carrier accidents from 1989 to 2008, resulting in 273 fatalities, according to federal data cited by Dorgan. Current FAA rules that govern flight crew rest and duty periods have gone without a major overhaul for at least 40 years, including two failed attempts in the 1990s. At the time, the FAA was unable to bridge differences between powerful pilot labor groups and lobbyists for airlines.

The revised FAA rules are expected to require airlines to take into account fatigue when scheduling pilots and flight attendants, including the time of day a shift starts and how many takeoffs and landings the crew would have to conduct.

Relatives of victims of the Buffalo crash said they were growing increasingly concerned about the pace of action in Washington on aviation safety improvements.

"It feels like they are going slow," said Margie Brandquist, a Leesburg resident who lost her 50-year-old sister on the Buffalo flight. "I'm pleased that Dorgan is holding the administration, the FAA and the pilots association accountable and not letting them off the hook."

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