WASHINGTON — Nearly three years after pilot fatigue was a factor in a crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people, the federal government mandated Wednesday 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," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said 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 because compliance would be too costly when compared with the safety benefits. That drew strong criticism from pilots unions.
LaHood said he will urge top officials from cargo airlines to voluntarily follow the new rules.
The Colgan crash 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 impact 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 Hersman.