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"Airlines resist move to relieve tired pilots"

Monday, July 16, 2001

Airlines resist move to relieve tired pilots
USA Today

The frightening problem is much debated in the airline industry, little
known outside: Tired pilots are often at the controls of huge passenger
jets, and some even fall asleep on the job.

Worse, the chance of fatigue has escalated in the past 2 years, as
unprecedented flight delays push more pilots' workdays far beyond the
maximum 16 hours envisioned by federal rules.

But the airline industry is resisting federal efforts to ensure pilots are
adequately rested. Last week the Air Transport Association (ATA), the
industry's lobbying arm, threatened court action to delay the Federal
Aviation Administration's stricter interpretation of pilot-rest rules,
insisting that they will cost unspecified millions and worsen delays.

Some cost impact seems likely, though it's far from clear whether it would
be significant. That is among the many uncomfortable results of the current
gridlock in the skies and a compelling reason to work faster to solve the
causes of flight delay. But it's no excuse for allowing tired pilots to fly
planes and compromise safety  especially when evidence of serious safety
concerns is mounting.

With pilot fatigue linked to crashes of two commercial airliners and a cargo
plane since 1993, the National Transportation Safety Board, which
investigates accidents, has been calling on the FAA to issue new rules on
duty and rest time for 6 years. The board is now investigating fatigue as a
possible cause of a 1999 American Airlines crash in Little Rock that killed
11 including the pilot.

Research confirms the risks posed by tired pilots: Reports by pilots to the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration showed that 21% of pilot
errors were fatigue-related and tended to occur during critical descent and
landing phases.

And pilots are tired. In a 1999 survey at one major airline, hundreds of
pilots reported incidents of drifting involuntarily to sleep while in the
cockpit; more than 15% said their "fatigue compromised safety."

Yet airlines continue to exploit a loophole in the pilot rest rules issued
in 1985  pushing beyond an already long, 16-hour workday limit. For years,
the airlines have interpreted the limit as a maximum for scheduled time on
duty. Additional time caused by air traffic control or weather delays isn't
counted. As delays have mounted, so have hours on the job.

Prodded by an American Airlines pilot concerned about excessive work hours,
the FAA finally moved to close the loophole and limit the actual hours
pilots work. Under the new interpretation, pilots can't fly if takeoff
delays would push them over their 16-hour workday limit.

Instead of adjusting to the change, the industry is grasping for excuses.
The ATA argues, for instance, that pilots are adding to flight fatigue by
living far from their operating bases and commuting hours to get to work.
But if a pilot comes to work tired, he is breaking other FAA rules and
should be reported. In fact, if this is a frequent problem, airlines should
resolve it by negotiating limits on where pilots can live  not by pushing
for weaker safety rules.

The FAA has given the airlines until November to comply with the rule.

Instead of wasting time with court challenges, the airlines should put
rested pilots in their cockpits and heed their No. 1 duty: getting
passengers to their destinations safely.

Fatigue can be deadly

The "number of accidents due to fatigue is difficult to determine and likely
to be underestimated," according to the National Transportation Safety
Board. Recent examples linked to pilot fatigue:

   June 1999: An American Airlines MD-82 landing in Little Rock skids off
the runway ramming light polls; 11 people die.

   August 1997: Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 crashes on landing at Guam,
killing 228.

   August 1993: American International Airways DC-8 crashes into a hill on
landing at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. All three crewmembers were injured.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board; USA TODAY research


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