FAA falls short on promise to expedite duty-time rules

 - December 29, 2009, 10:43 AM

New rules governing flight- and duty-time limitations and rest requirements for Part 121 pilots are still a work in progress, according to FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Margaret Gilligan, who testified at a hearing before the Senate aviation subcommittee early last month.

Despite the efforts of an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) chartered by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in June, completion of the new rules “has taken longer than any of us wanted or expected,” said Gilligan. She promised that the agency would have a completed proposal by the first of the year.

According to Gilligan, the ARC “has provided a framework” and “we are prepared to make those decisions to fill in the details.” However, before the final product can be made public as a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), it must receive approval from the Department of Transportation and the White House Office of Management and Budget. That would add several more months to the timetable.

As an example of the complexity of the flight- and duty-time limitations and rest requirements, in 1995 the FAA proposed a rule to change flight time and rest limits. The agency received more than 2,000 comments from the aviation community and the public.

Research Ongoing

Most of those comments did not favor the rule as proposed, and there was no clear consensus on what the final rule should say. On November 23, almost 15 years after the FAA issued the original NPRM, the agency officially withdrew it.

Gilligan told the senators that the FAA chartered the flight- and duty-time limitations and rest requirements ARC, composed of 18 members representing airline and labor associations, to develop recommendations for an FAA rule based on current fatigue science and a thorough review of international approaches to the issue.

“We cannot discuss further particulars of the FAA’s rulemaking efforts at this time,” she said. “However, we are working as quickly as possible to complete a draft notice of proposed rulemaking. I will readily acknowledge that this effort has been difficult, and has taken us longer than we wanted or expected.”

The FAA safety administrator conceded that the events of the past 15 years evidence the complexity of the issue and the strong concerns of the parties involved, and those same complexities and concerns are clear in the current rulemaking as well.

William Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), said that at a minimum the new rules should address the relationship among assigned duty and the time of day, the cumulative effects of consecutive duty periods and the effect of multiple short flights during the duty day. “These provisions will not be perfect, but for smaller operators they’ll be practicable,” he said.

Voss told the committee that the FSF recommends the adoption of a fatigue risk management system (FRMS), which addresses fatigue systematically. “It decreases the role of the regulator and increases the responsibility of the operator and its employees to jointly manage the risk,” he explained. “Broadly speaking, FRMS is a three-pronged approach based on prevention, mitigation and intervention.”

Voss further noted the strong recommendation from the foundation for allowing regulated controlled rest in the cockpit, adding that this is allowed in many other countries around the world and was based on NASA research.

“Controlled napping must never take the place of a good night’s sleep and sensible, scientifically defensible scheduling, but on occasion, a pilot may unexpectedly feel extra fatigue,” he said. “It is far safer to have a procedure in place to allow the fatigued pilot to sleep for a prescribed amount of time with the full knowledge of the copilot and the rest of the flight crew.”

Air Line Pilots Association president Capt. John Prater reiterated ALPA’s position that the new flight- and duty-time rules and minimum rest requirements that FAA Administrator Babbitt promised to have in place by next year must be based on science, be uniform for all types of airline flight operations–with no “carveouts” for air cargo or charter operations–and incorporate FRMS.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, cited 273 deaths in 20 U.S. airline accidents in as many years in which the NTSB cited pilot fatigue as a contributing factor.

“The stories we have heard [about pilot fatigue] are fairly frightening,” he said. “Another false start [in issuing new regulations] would be unacceptable.” He added that the hearing “has to be a catalyst” to bring about reform.

Prater asserted, “We badly need a new flight- and duty-time regulation. While we have been told it will be done in mid-2010, we have seen too many times in the past that the FAA has not delivered on its promises with regard to pilot-fatigue regulations.”