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Facing the danger of pilot fatigue

No one has determined why American Airlines Flight 1420 skidded off a runway and crashed in Little Rock, Ark., last year, but newly released information about the June 1 accident that killed 11 people raises troubling questions about the amount of time some pilots are spending in the cockpit. At the very least, the incident offers evidence that the federal government should be paying more attention to pilot fatigue _ a problem that could be putting airline passengers at risk.

For years, the National Transportation Safety Board has been urging the Federal Aviation Administration to take steps to ensure that airline pilots get adequate rest while on the job, but until recently, the FAA hasn't paid much attention to the problem. Stricter rules might have prevented the 1993 crash of a cargo plane in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that was blamed on tired pilots who had been on duty for 18 hours. Tougher regulations might also have prevented some of the near misses reported on the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database that allows pilots to report dangerous incidents anonymously. About 21 percent of the cases logged into the system mention fatigue.

In the Little Rock case, the plane's two pilots had been on duty for nearly 14 hours at the time of the crash, and the plane's cockpit recorder picked up one of them yawning. Investigators still do not know whether a series of mistakes the pilots made prior to their landing attempt can be blamed on exhaustion, but they are looking at the possibility.

Under the FAA's current rules, pilots may fly no more than eight hours in a 24-hour period, but many pilots remain on duty for close to double that time, taking care of additional responsibilities on the ground. Safety experts say the long hours easily can cause fatigue, a difficult problem for airlines because pilots who suffer from it often do not realize they are impaired. Commuter pilots are particularly susceptible because they have a heavier workload than pilots who fly larger aircraft.

In the wake of the Little Rock crash, the FAA announced it will propose rules that limit a pilot's duty time to 14 hours, possibly extending that by two hours for pilots whose schedules have been disrupted by bad weather. The agency also will consider whether to endorse a controversial plan to allow pilots to nap in the cockpit, as long as more than one is on duty.

The FAA still is fine-tuning details of the plan, but its existence is an encouraging sign that the agency finally recognizes the potential danger when pilots don't get enough rest.