Overhaul of Pilot Flight- and Duty-time Rules Roundly Criticized

 - November 29, 2010, 6:58 AM
The proposed flight- and duty-time rule reflects “a lack of understanding by FAA of how airlines operate,” according to ATA president and CEO James May. (Photo by Paul Lowe)

A new pilot flight- and duty-time rule proposed by the U.S. FAA has elicited a predictably negative reaction from the airline lobby, but even elements within the pilot community have voiced opposition to a number of the plan’s most fundamental provisions. The Air Transport Association (ATA), for one, accuses the NPRM’s authors of an attempt at regulatory overreach, while the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA) complains that the rule doesn’t go far enough.

“We are concerned that the proposed rule reflects a lack of understanding by the FAA of how airlines operate,” said ATA president and CEO James May. “Our concerns are validated by the fact that the FAA’s economic analysis is off the mark by at least a factor of 15 in its impact assessment, making it imperative that this proposal be significantly revised.”

The ATA estimates that the rule would cost the U.S. airline industry $19.641 billion over 10 years, while the FAA places the cost at some $1.254 billion. The ATA accused the FAA of adding measures not supported by scientific research and driven by “extraneous” political considerations. The group also accused the FAA of “a lack of rigor” in its data analysis, specifically in its reliance on accidents in which fatigue did not contribute to the cause, accidents in which other regulations addressed the primary cause and accidents that occurred before the current operating and regulatory environment prevailed. Furthermore, said the ATA, the NPRM ignores the operational experience of the international airline community. It pointed out that neither the UK’s CAP-371 regulation nor the EU’s subpart Q regulation contains a daily flight-time limit. “This is because the body of scientific research and literature demonstrates that in the face of a reasonable [flight duty period], a daily limit is duplicative and unnecessary,” said the ATA.    

Meanwhile, CAPA–a group representing 28,000 pilots flying for 15 U.S. airlines–complains that the proposed rule would increase the maximum block-hour limit from eight to 10 hours and eliminate the weekly limit of 30 flying hours. According to CAPA, the weekly limit, which the NPRM would instead base on duty periods, could result in 50 flight hours in a week. “There is no scientific data to show that increasing flight hours worked will reduce fatigue,” said the coalition. “Common sense would suggest these increases would only increase the risk of fatigue.”

CAPA also objects to the NPRM’s proposed increase in the minimum rest requirement from eight hours off duty to nine hours, not including travel time to a hotel, for both domestic and international flying. The coalition expressed particular concern that the new rule appears to ignore the effects of multiple time zone changes during international operations, in effect allowing for a 44-percent reduction in rest for international flying. In response, CAPA has called for a strict minimum rest period of 10 hours for domestic flying and 14 hours for international flying.

Unveiled on September 10, the NPRM represents the most sweeping attempt to overhaul the FAA’s flight- and duty-time regulations since the FAA last updated the rules in 1985. In fact, one of its primary goals centers on the establishment of a single set of regulations for domestic, international and unscheduled flying. It would adopt “a new approach” to measuring a rest period that guarantees an opportunity for eight hours of sleep and varied requirements based on time of day, number of scheduled segments, flight types, time zones and the likelihood that a pilot can sleep under different circumstances. The proposal would limit the daily flight-duty period to 13 hours, which could slide to nine hours at night (depending on takeoff time and number of segments scheduled). Current rules allow for a 16-hour duty period between rest periods.

Current rules limit pilots flying domestically to 30 hours of flight time during any seven consecutive days. They limit those flying international operations to 32 hours over the same time period, while no limit exists for supplemental operations. The proposal provides pilots with at least 30 consecutive hours per week free from all duty, compared with the current 24 hours. The proposed rule defines “flight duty” as the period of time when a pilot reports for duty with the intention of flying an aircraft, operating a simulator or operating a flight-training device. A pilot’s entire duty period can include both “flight duty” and other tasks that do not involve flight time, such as record keeping and ground training. 

The NPRM must become final by next August under a deadline set by Congress.