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"Pilots say fatigue in the cockpit a growing airline safety problem"

Monday, July 26, 2004

Pilots say fatigue in the cockpit a growing airline safety problem
By Alexandra Marks 
The Christian Science Monitor 

NEW YORK - The nation's top airlines are still wallowing in red ink, and
their pilots are tired - some literally exhausted. 
Or so says Capt. Jane Meher. That's not her real name. As a pilot who's
not a union official, she says she's forbidden by contract to talk to
the media. Still, she was concerned enough about what she sees as a
deteriorating safety standard that she came forward. And so did others. 

"Every pilot I talk to feels like they're being pushed to the limit,"
Meher said. "It hasn't created a problem yet, but it could." 

Fatigue has long been one of the top problems on the list of "Most
Wanted Safety Fixes" from the National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB). Since the 2001 recession and the Sept. 11 attacks plunged the
major airlines into a financial sinkhole, pilots say the fatigue problem
has gotten steadily worse. And it's reaching a nadir during this
summer's peak travel season, with airline staffing pared down and more
Americans returning to the skies. 

Part of the problem is that many pilots are flying more hours than ever
before because of work-rule concessions they made to try to help the
financially strapped carriers. Another factor is what critics call the
archaic Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules governing how much
rest pilots should get between flights. The current requirements were
developed in 1985, when the airline industry was entirely different.
Critics contend that on one hand, they're inadequate in terms of
ensuring the pilot gets a good night's rest - and on the other hand,
their inflexibility ends up complicating scheduling, which can
exacerbate the fatigue problem. 

The airlines and the FAA acknowledge that economic challenges have put
new pressures on pilots, but each also insists that safety has not been

"Our rules set a minimum standard that provides for safe flight in this
country," said Alison Duquette, an FAA spokeswoman. "We believe they are
still providing for safe flight." 

Experts hope Duquette is right, but they also say the complaints about
fatigue reflect a basic problem with carriers such as American, United
and Delta: They're operating with unsustainable cost structures and are
inherently inefficient. To survive, they'll need to change

Since 1993, the NTSB has cited fatigue as a contributing factor in three
commercial-airline accidents. The most recent was the July 2002 crash of
a FedEx cargo jet in Tallahassee, Fla. In that case, the pilots were
flying on "the backside of the clock" - aviation jargon for a
late-night, early-morning shift. Last month the NTSB noted pointedly in
findings on the crash that more research needs to be done on such

Pilots say that's even more important now that strapped airlines try to
cover more flights with fewer flight crews. It's not only that crews are
flying more hours, but they're also working far more erratic schedules.
One captain of a major airline says he is scheduled to fly for two days,
one all-nighter, and then for two days again. 

"That's when you have the major fatigue problem," says the captain, who
didn't want his name used. "Just try sleeping in the middle of the day,
particularly in a hotel room. 'Do not disturb' signs don't mean anything
to the maids." 

Jack Evans, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the lobbying
arm of the major airlines, acknowledges that some carriers are working
to increase productivity to keep costs down. "But we adamantly are not
going to do that at the cost of safety," he said. 

Pilots unions aren't satisfied that is the case. They've been pushing
the FAA to update fatigue rules since the early 1990s. In 1995, the FAA
proposed some changes, but since then the issue has languished. The
airlines and pilots can't agree on new rules, and the FAA is reluctant
to impose them. 

"We're not holding our breath, because years ago they were saying that
new rules were imminent, and it keeps getting pushed back," says Bill
Edmunds, a fatigue specialist at the Allied Pilots Association. "But
we're still trying to get some action on it."


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