It's been two decades since the National Transportation Safety Commission made this no-brainer of a suggestion: How about the federal agency that oversees airlines make rules to prevent fatigue in the cockpit that are actually based on sleep science?
Now, the Federal Aviation Administration finally appears ready to tighten up work time and rest regulations for pilots.
The agency pledged to rewrite the rules after a Continental Express turboprop crashed outside Buffalo in February, killing 50 people. Fatigue of the two crew members, along with pilot error and training deficiencies contributed to the accident, investigators said.
Co-pilot Rebecca Shaw commuted by air from Seattle to her crew base at Newark Liberty International Airport and investigators suspect she didn't sleep the night before the crash. Capt. Marvin Renslow of Lutz may have dozed overnight in a crew room at the airport.
Aviation experts say commuter airline pilots like Renslow and Shaw fly the most exhausting schedules in the business. They typically make multiple landings and takeoffs — the most stressful part of flying — into busy airports in the dark.
At the end of the day, commuter pilots often get only the minimum eight hours of "rest" time. The clock starts from when they park the plane to when they fly off the next day. Driving to and from a hotel, meals and other chores are included in that.
"We receive daily reports of scheduling that causes pilots to be virtual zombies," Capt. John Prater, president of the Airline Pilots Association, told the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last week.
Rules for domestic trips, in place since the days of propeller planes in the 1940s, allow pilots to fly eight hours in a 24-hour period. But they can be on duty as long as 16 straight hours, including nonflying time.
Here's the problem: Scientific studies show, not surprisingly, that a pilot's performance runs down as the day wears on. An NTSB study of major airline accidents from 1978 to 1990 showed half the captains had been awake more than 12 hours.
The FAA expects to finish proposed new rules early next year. They'll be reviewed by the Department of Transportation and the White House, then open for public comment. The agency's safety boss told senators last week that the rules would take into account the time of day pilots fly and how many trips they've flown in a day.
"If you're flying at night, that may reduce the number of hours you are available," said Peggy Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety. "If you have a high number of takeoffs and landings, that may reduce the number of hours."
FAA officials tried to change flight time and rest limits in 1995. But the proposal, which included reducing duty hours from 16 to 14 for two-pilot crews, was quashed after a flood of objections from airlines worried about the expense of hiring more pilots.
This time, carriers support reducing daily duty hours, provided they can extend the limits in "extenuating circumstances," said Basil Barimo of the Air Transport Association, the trade group for major airlines.
It's about time.
Information from the Dallas Morning News was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.