To the traveling public, piloting a commercial jetliner may seem enviable, exciting and exotic. But the job can be exhausting as well, with too many hours spent in the cockpit, many nights spent in nondescript hotel rooms, food eaten on the run and the constant pressure to meet grueling airline scheduling demands, often with little sleep. New regulations by the U.S. Department of Transportation to give pilots more rest and shorter shifts are long overdue and a welcome first step toward ensuring greater safety in the nation's skies.
Passengers have a right to know the pilot in command of their flight is fit and rested. The DOT also needs to extend this commitment to public safety by broadening the rules to include air traffic controllers and cargo carrier pilots.
The FAA regulations, requiring longer rest periods and shorter shifts for pilots, are the most sweeping changes in decades. They were spurred by the 2009 Colgan Air crash near Buffalo that claimed 50 lives. Investigators determined the crash was caused by pilot error on the part of an inexperienced captain, Marvin Renslow, as well as pilot fatigue. Both Renslow and second officer Rebecca Shaw had been working long, disjointed hours without proper rest. Under the new FAA rules, estimated to cost commercial carriers about $300 million a year, pilots will be required to get at least 10 hours of off-duty time before getting behind the controls.
A critical element of the regulations requires that work shift times will range between nine and 14 hours, including the time pilots spend getting from their homes — which can involve traveling from another state — to reach their scheduled flight's departure point. While these regulations will provide a greater degree of public safety, they don't go far enough. The guidelines do not include cargo pilots or air traffic controllers, who need just as much physical and mental readiness as commercial pilots.
Cargo carriers complained that following the same rest and work shift regulations would impose an undue economic burden. But cargo carriers share the same air space over American cities. They should be held to the same standard of fitness for duty.
With an ever-growing menu of fees, crowded planes and long security lines, travel today is hardly an elegant, relaxing experience. It is not too much to expect that the pilots of America's commercial aircraft have a good night's sleep before coming to work.