Court blocks FAA duty-time ruling

 - November 26, 2007, 12:48 PM

The U.S. Court of Appeals struck a blow to pilot groups across the country last month when it blocked a federal court’s ruling to force scheduled Part 121 carriers to comply with a new interpretation of the long-disputed pilot duty-time rule. The Regional Airline Association and the Air Transport Association each filed motions earlier this year to suspend the District Court’s original ruling, which removed ground delays from the list of uncontrollable circumstances that allow pilots to exceed their duty limits. In its motion, the RAA argued that the FAA violated its own Administrative Procedures Act by circumventing the required notice and comment process for any new rule. Under the Appeals Court’s ruling, the FAA, pilot unions and airline associations will present their arguments before the court in January.

“This is clearly a case where the FAA violated its own regulation requiring that significant changes to existing regulations be offered for notice and comment by all affected parties,” said RAA president Debby McElroy.

The controversy over pilot rest rules in the U.S. boiled over last November, when, at the behest of the Allied Pilots Association, the FAA issued a policy statement that, in essence, established a strict 16-hr duty limit for Part 121 operations, whether or not circumstances arise beyond the control of the carrier. Until now airlines have allowed pilots to exceed their scheduled duty limits in circumstances such as adverse weather and traffic congestion. Under the FAA’s November 20 “clarification,” airlines would have to adjust their crew schedules to reflect those changing conditions.

Similarly, if a ground delay occurs while a pilot waits in line to take off, he or she would be required to return to the gate if the delay stood to result in a duty-time violation by the time the airplane landed at its destination. Most disturbing to the RAA, the rule would require pilots to “look back” after every arrival to find an eight-hour scheduled rest period during the previous 24 hours. Under the new interpretation, the “look-back” provision would apply to unscheduled time as well, meaning dispatchers and crew might have to adjust their duty schedules after each flight.

The RAA believes the rule, as most recently interpreted by the FAA, would not only result in more flight delays but also require major airlines to hire more pilots from the regional ranks, exacerbating U.S. regional airlines’ already dire staffing predicament. Further strain on such a tight labor market would only lead to more safety concerns, the association argues.

Of course, the Allied Pilots Association–the union that represents the pilots of American Airlines–and the FAA cite safety concerns as the sole motivation for their efforts to enforce duty-time limits more strictly. Despite airline protests to the contrary, the APA and FAA claim the “clarification” does not constitute a change to the existing rule, and that airlines should have been following the regulations as most recently interpreted all along. The RAA disagrees, and insists the new interpretation should face the scrutiny of a formal rulemaking process and comment period.

The existence of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in the works provides the basis for another of the RAA’s arguments against the new interpretation. “Why subject airlines to a private interpretation of an existing rule if the FAA will revisit the issue in a more formal manner?” asked McElroy. According to the RAA, the NPRM would reduce the de facto 16-hr scheduled duty time limit to 14 hr, while allowing another two hours of unscheduled duty and maintaining all the provisions for compensatory rest.

Currently, during the 24-hr period before the scheduled end of a flight, airlines must guarantee nine hours of rest for less than eight hours of scheduled flight time, 10  hours of rest for between eight and nine hours of scheduled flight time and 11 hours of rest for more than nine hours of scheduled flight time. An airline may reduce the required rest to eight hours if it grants the pilot in question a 10-, 11- or 12-hr rest period, depending on the duration of the flight time, to begin no later than 24 hr after the start of the rest period.