FAA proposal seeks more rest for pilots

By Ashley Halsey III Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

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.

"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 U.S. 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 U.S. have involved commuter flights, and in four cases pilot error was cited as a factor.

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