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Proposed FAA regulations would enable pilots to get more sleep

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By Ashley Halsey III Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:08 PM

One pilot last slept in an airport lounge and the other took an overnight cross-country flight before they teamed up in the cockpit for a flight from Newark to Buffalo. Nineteen months after their plane crashed, killing 50 people, the federal government has proposed strict new regulations that would enable pilots to get more sleep.

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"It could have been prevented," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said about the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February 2009.

Pilots would be required to rest for nine hours - and have a chance to sleep for at least eight of those hours - before reporting for duty, under proposed regulations announced Friday by LaHood and J. Randolph Babbitt, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Pilots also would be required to take a minimum of 30 consecutive hours off each week, a 25 percent increase over current rules.

"We have too many situations where pilots were flying fatigued," Babbitt said.

Fatigue, ineptitude and inexperience were cited by National Transportation Safety Board investigators who probed the Colgan crash. The pilot, Marvin D. Renslow, 47, chattered away at the co-pilot, Rebecca L. Shaw, 27, throughout the flight and did the exact opposite of what was needed when the plane lost speed and stalled, the NTSB concluded.

He spent the night before the flight sleeping in the pilot's lounge at Newark International Airport. She flew in on an overnight flight from her home in Seattle.

"Neither had slept in a bed the night before," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), whose Senate subcommittee on aviation held a hearing on the Colgan crash. "In almost every crash we've looked into, fatigue and lack of rest have been a factor."

Airline scheduling never has been compatible with a good night's sleep. Passengers prefer to fly out in the morning and to return home in the evening. Build in the pilot's own commute and quick overnight stays in hotels or shared "crash pads," and regular sleep patterns get disrupted.

"If it takes hours to get to the hotel, you're still going to get nine hours" of rest under the rule change, Babbitt said.

In addition, the profusion of commuter flights in the past 20 years has raised new concerns. Their pilots often hopscotch from a major hub airport to several "spoke" airports, sometimes making for longer and more fatiguing days. They don't always have the luxury of van service to a hotel or make enough money to pay for a shared crash pad. Shaw made less than $16,000 the year before the fatal crash.

"Half of the flights in America now are commuter flights," Dorgan said, "and they often end up somewhere late at night after many, many stops."

The last six fatal airline accidents in the United States. have involved commuter flights, and in four cases pilot error was cited as a factor.

Babbitt said the proposed regulations, which require a 60-day comment period before adoption, were developed in consultation with airline and pilot associations. He acknowledged that the rules would negatively affect airlines if schedule changes or fresh crews were required. The FAA has estimated that the regulations could cost airlines $1.3 billion over the next 10 years.

The largest airline trade group, the Air Transport Association, said it would review the proposal. "The Air Transport Association has long been on record in support of pilot-rest and fatigue-management rules that are science-based, effective and crafted to truly improve safety," said spokesman David A. Castelveter. "We will be evaluating the FAA pilot-fatigue rule against that standard and will be guided accordingly."

Most FAA pilot standards are 20 years old and some date back more than 60 years. Congress has demanded that the FAA issue final rules by next August, and elements of the proposal are expected to face opposition during the comment period.

The proposed rules also would protect pilots from retribution by airlines if they decline a flight because of fatigue. The pilots union has contended that some airlines bend the rules when necessary to meet their scheduling demands.

The details of the federal proposal include the following changes:

lThe minimum nine-hour rest period is a one-hour increase over the current standard. There have been complaints that the clock on the eight-hour rest period starts as soon as the crew leaves the cockpit.

lThe minimum number of consecutive hours off would increase from 24 hours to 30.

lNo pilot could fly more than 1,000 hours a year. Currently that limit only applies to pilots who fly domestic flights.

lPilots would be limited to 13 duty hours, and that number would decrease depending on time of day and the number of stops. Now they are allowed 16 duty hours between rest periods. Duty hours are defined by the time a pilot spends ready for work or actually in the air.

The FAA plan does not address commuting by pilots, which often, as was the case with Shaw in the Colgan flight, involves flying for hours as a passenger to meet a plane at a distant airport. Neither pilot unions or airlines want to lose the flexibility that commuting provides, but the new regulations say commutes should not be counted as official rest periods.

halseya@washpost.com


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