Airlines, unions, FAA take on pilot fatigue

Crowded skies and exhausted pilots are a bad mix, the airline industry and pilot unions agree, but they're struggling over what to do about it.

The airlines want to schedule some pilots with less-taxing flights -- fewer takeoffs and landings -- but for longer, not shorter, hours in the cockpit. The unions say they won't agree to more hours for those pilots in exchange for fewer hours for pilots who fly as many as a half dozen short flights a day or take off at odd times.

That was the main sticking point in an otherwise harmonious effort over the past month and a half to rewrite flying-time rules that in many cases are a half-century old and predate recent scientific findings concerning fatigue. The advisory committee on pilot fatigue was expected to deliver its recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration late Tuesday.

Committee members said the FAA had asked them not to make their recommendations public.

Concerned by the possibility that pilot fatigue has contributed to fatal crashes, some members of Congress have been pressing for changes.

There are likely to be at least three sets of recommendations. Labor, passenger airlines and cargo carriers all have their own lists, participants said.

"There will be more than one sheet of music coming out," said Russ Leighton, director of aviation safety for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. It will be up to FAA to write the final tune, he said.

Although Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt has promised to go over those recommendations swiftly and turn them into a formal proposal by the FAA, the process will at a minimum take months to complete.

Current rules say pilots can be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty and up to eight hours of actual flight time in a day, with a minimum of eight hours off in between. The rules don't take into account that it is probably more tiring for regional airline pilots to fly five or six short legs in seven hours than it is for a pilot with a major airline to fly eight hours across the Atlantic to Europe with only one takeoff and landing.

Finding ways to prevent pilot fatigue has stymied federal regulators and the airline industry for decades. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending since 1990 that rules on how many hours pilots can be scheduled to work be updated to reflect modern research and take into account early starting times and frequent takeoffs and landings.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said she didn't expect Tuesday's recommendations to address all the issues but hoped they would create a foundation. "You have to build all the rest of the house around it," she said.