The Chicago accident attorneys of Passen & Powell have often expressed concern over the problem of pilot fatigue. Now, the FAA has completed a fifteen-month effort to overhaul the regulations governing pilot hours, with the goal of reducing pilot fatigue and increasing safety. The overhaul is long overdue: many of the pilot regulations date back to the 1940s, and the last time any of them was updated was about two decades ago. The public now has sixty days to review and comment on the proposed regulations before they are finalized and made law.
The FAA states that the proposed new regulations are based upon the latest scientific research, which has increased our understanding of how fatigue can impact performance. The goal is to combat pilot fatigue, which can lead to errors and airplane crashes. Unfortunately, while some good would be done by the proposed new regulations, in many areas they do not go far enough, and in at least one area, they represent a step backwards.
The first key area of the new pilot rules would reduce the overall number of hours pilots can work in a twenty-four-hour period. This includes both actual cockpit time and preparation time – time that the pilot is required to be at work, even if not flying. Under the new rules, pilots would be limited to thirteen hours of work in any twenty-four-hour period. Shockingly, this is three hours fewer than what is allowed by the current regulations (they permit sixteen hours of pilot work in a twenty-four-hour period). Our Chicago accident attorneys fully support this change.
This general rule would be altered for pilots who fly at night. These pilots would be limited to fewer hours, holding them to as few as nine hours. This is particularly significant for charter and cargo carriers, who would also be subject to the new rules. Cargo carriers, including package delivery airlines, are run using a considerable amount of night flying. Charter airlines, which carry virtually all U.S. troops, as well as a significant percentage of U.S. military cargo, likewise use significant nighttime flights. Although these carriers urged the FAA to maintain an existing exemption from the rules, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt made the commonsense statement that U.S. troops deserve safe, well-rested pilots, too.
Pilots flying during the day, however, could spend more hours “behind the wheel” than they could under the old rules. Pilots who report to work between the hours of 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. could be scheduled for as many as ten hours of actual flying time. This is two more hours that the current regulations permit for daytime pilots. Jeff Skiles, the First Officer praised for his professionalism when his plane was downed in the Hudson River last year, summed up the common-sense response to this proposal: “The insidious problem of pilot fatigue cannot be fought by increasing the amount of time pilots fly in the cockpit.” Our Chicago personal injury lawyers echo Mr. Skiles’ sentiments.
Another facet of the new rules governs the rest period required for pilots between shifts. The new FAA rules would increase the required rest period from 8 to 9 hours. While our transportation accident lawyers applaud the increase, this is one area where the new rules do not go far enough. That is because the rest period “begins” as soon as the pilot leaves the plane. Thus, a nine hour “rest period” can still result in only a very few hours of sleep between ten to thirteen hour shifts. If you believe that the proposed rest period is adequate, consider whether you would want a pilot flying your plane after a thirteen-hour shift and three or four hours of sleep.
Although the proposed FAA rules are certainly a step in the right direction, there are also several gaping holes in their reach. First, the rules do nothing to address the problem of “commuter pilots.” Pilots often live in one city, but are based in another – for instance, the pilot and first officer involved in a recent fatal accident were based in Newark, New Jersey, but lived in Tampa, Florida and Seattle, Washington, respectively. Thus, due to the short rest periods required, neither had slept in a bed the night before the fatal accident.
While the FAA has informally stated that commuting time should not be a part of rest periods, the new rules do not actually contain this restriction. This is probably in response to pressure from the airlines and pilots’ unions, both of which oppose restrictions on commuter pilots. Despite the opposition from the unions, many pilots believe that their commuting colleagues, in combination with the limited rest periods available, present a significant safety risk.
The other large hole in the new proposed regulations is the failure to recognize the difference between regional airlines and major, nationwide companies. Regional airline pilots do far more takeoffs and landings (the most taxing and stressful activities) within a given time period than pilots for larger airlines, and more of their airtime is spent around airports and thus in traffic. Experts believe that this type of flying is far more strenuous and fatiguing than long flights cross-country or even over the ocean. Indeed, this is borne out by the evidence: the past six fatal crashes in the U.S. have all involved regional airlines. In four of those, pilot fatigue was identified as a contributing factor, although our Chicago personal injury attorneys believe that it was likely an unidentified factor in the other two.
Perhaps the FAA’s failure to take the major steps needed is likely a response to industry pressures, and the simple dollars-and-cents reality of such reforms. Even with the limited steps being taken, the FAA estimate (which is likely conservative) puts the cost to airlines of complying with the new regulations at $1.3 billion over the course of the next 10 years. But which cost is greater: the cost of complying with the regulations needed to keep passengers safe, or the costs of all kinds associated with a fatal plane crash? The attorneys of Passen & Powell urge the FAA to toughen up the proposed regulations and take the steps necessary to keep American passengers safe from pilot fatigue.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago accident lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.