Commentary: Duty and flight time limitations

 - May 19, 2008, 9:10 AM

Now, after being somewhat dormant on the subject for a number of years, the Federal Aviation Administration has expressed concern about airline pilot duty days, which according to the Federal Aviation Regulations allow for a 16-hr duty day with no more than eight hours flying time. Aware that weather delays and airport congestion may cause circumstances that require airline pilots to extend their duty day beyond the maximum allowed, the FAA has called the attention of the airlines to the 16-hr duty day limit, which includes any unforeseen delays, and has given the airline industry until mid-November to adjust schedules so that the regulations
are not breached.

The FAA has been mulling over writing new regulations since 1995 and, at last report, has indicated that the industry can expect to see new proposals by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, whose members represent pilots at commercial and cargo carriers, has suggested that the FAA limit airline pilots to a 12-hr duty day, with two additional hours permitted should there be delays. At the same time, the air carriers have indicated a preference for a 14-hr duty day, with two additional hours for delays. The Air Transport Association (ATA) has a case in federal court to challenge the FAA’s interpretation of the 16-hr duty day and does not want the FAA to enforce the regulation governing it until the court case is resolved.

Bizav Must Self-regulate

Duty- and flight-time limitations are not new to business aircraft operations, and they have perplexed business aircraft owners, aviation department management and flight crews for a very long time. There are no federal regulations that set limits for this branch of aviation and self regulation is the rule. For aviation department managers, the concern has generally been with the length of the duty day rather than the number of flight hours within that day. This problem rears its head when the schedule calls for long waiting periods for the next leg, multiple flight legs and/or the return flight to the home base.

Unfortunately, waiting time is often unpredictable due to the business needs of the passengers. It is difficult to get around the fundamental reason for operating a corporate aircraft, namely for on-demand air transportation. Consequently, most aviation department managers recognize that duty-day and flying-time limits cannot be set in concrete and that, at best, what is prescribed has to have a degree of flexibility to allow for any business exigencies that may occur.

To avoid misunderstandings with passengers as to aircrew limitations, aviation department managers should keep those who request transportation informed and advised when their requests present a problem. There have been any number of horror stories about executives who ignore the possibility of pilot fatigue and who demand that a flight be made, “or else!”

PIC Has the Final Decision

In all cases, the pilot-in-command of the aircraft has the authority–and must have the backing of management–to call a halt to the flight if and when pilot fatigue surfaces and has to be addressed.

With due recognition for the variables in business aircraft scheduling, the general practice appears to be for a 14-hr duty day limitation with no more than eight flying hours in that day. Where the aircraft is based, the number of rested and ready-to-go pilots available and the geographical pattern of flight schedules have a bearing on what the company policies should be. This could result in the allowable duty day being shortened or lengthened.

When long waiting periods are anticipated, aircrews are usually permitted to obtain rooms in an appropriate rest facility if the waiting time exceeds six hours and, in some cases, the duty day may be extended based on the number of rest hours obtained.

With long-range business jets, international flights add a different dimension to the duty day and flight-time problem. For international flights, most aircrews are obligated to report two hours before the scheduled takeoff time to prepare for the flight and will usually require an hour after landing for whatever post-flight activities are needed. These times have to be calculated into the duty day. Consequently, the length of the duty day may be extended, with aircrew concurrence, to fit the flight schedule.

Also to be considered with regard to international flights is the need to include additional onboard aircrew members and/or prepositioning additional aircrew members if necessary, so a flight can be continued without much delay.

Whether the schedule calls for a domestic or international flight, most aviation department managers appear to be cognizant of the airplane and personnel resources at their disposal and the limitations of both. And, as previously noted, the pilot-in-command of the aircraft has the ultimate decision-making authority, and must have the courage to exercise that authority because the safety of the flight always rests in his or her hands.