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FAA Issues New Rules Aimed At Keeping Tired Pilots Out Of Cockpits

Feb. 16, 2009: Flowers are left in memorial near where Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, N.Y. Fifty people died. Pilot fatigue was cited as a factor.
David Duprey/pool
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Feb. 16, 2009: Flowers are left in memorial near where Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, N.Y. Fifty people died. Pilot fatigue was cited as a factor.

Saying that they will help make sure that airline pilots are rested before they fly, the Federal Aviation Administration today unveiled new rules about the amount of time off they must get between flights and how long they can be on the job.

"We made a promise to the traveling public that we would do everything possible to make sure pilots are rested when they get in the cockpit," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement issued by his department. The new rules, he added, raise "the safety bar."

Some of the details:

-- "Different requirements for pilot flight time, duty period and rest based on the time of day pilots begin their first flight, the number of scheduled flight segments and the number of time zones they cross."

-- "The allowable length of a flight duty period depends on when the pilot's day begins and the number of flight segments he or she is expected to fly, and ranges from 9-14 hours for single crew operations."

-- "Flight duty includes deadhead transportation, training in an aircraft or flight simulator, and airport standby or reserve duty if these tasks occur before a flight or between flights without an intervening required rest period."

-- "A 10-hour minimum rest period prior to the flight duty period, a two-hour increase over the previous rules."

-- "Pilots [must] have at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, a 25 percent increase over the previous rules."

As The Associated Press explains:

"Researchers say fatigue, much like alcohol, can impair a pilot's performance by slowing reflexes and eroding judgment. The National Transportation Safety Board has been campaigning for two decades for an overhaul of pilot work schedule rules. An effort by the FAA in the late 1990s to develop new rules stalled when pilot unions and airlines were unable to find common ground.

"That effort was revived after the February 2009 crash Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo [which killed 50 people]. Neither pilot appeared to have slept in a bed the previous night. The flight's captain had logged onto a computer in the middle of the night from an airport crew lounge where sleeping was discouraged. The first officer had commuted overnight from Seattle to Newark, N.J., much of the time sitting in a cockpit jumpseat. They could be heard yawning on the ill-fated flight's cockpit voice recorder."

The FAA says the rules should add about $300 million to passenger airlines' costs over 10 years. The carriers have two years to implement them. Pilots on cargo flights will not be subject to the new rules because the FAA decided they would be too costly for cargo carries to implement. The Air Line Pilots Association finds that exemption disappointing. But the union also cited the new rules as "historic progress" in the effort to address pilot fatigue.

Update at 2:25 p.m. ET. Higher Fares, Fewer Small Planes?

Bloomberg News reports that:

" 'The basic bottom line is consumers can expect to see higher airfares and reduced levels of service as a direct result of these rules," Helane Becker, a Dahlman Rose & Co. airline analyst in New York, said in a telephone interview. Fifty-passenger planes operated by regional airlines including Pinnacle Airlines Corp. (PNCL), Republic Airways Holdings Inc. (RJET) and SkyWest Inc. (SKYW) will 'become dinosaurs' as they become less cost-effective to operate, she said."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott
Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.