Pilot fatigue in the cockpit? Congress takes FAA to task.

Members of Congress tried to crack the whip on airline regulators Tuesday, complaining of delays in safety rules covering pilot fatigue.

“We’re just out of patience here,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota told a Federal Aviation Administration official at a hearing on the issue. “It’s not like sending a person to the moon.”

The question of improving regulations to prevent pilot fatigue has simmered for two decades, and has become more urgent this year after the February crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, also marketed as a Continental Connection flight. Crew fatigue is one of several factors that may have played a role in the Buffalo, N.Y., crash in which 50 people died.

Despite changes in the industry and growing research on fatigue, the rules governing pilot hours have remained essentially unchanged for decades.

Mr. Dorgan said the issue had been on the National Transportation Safety Board’s “most wanted” list of improvements for 19 years.

Margaret Gilligan, the FAA’s associate administrator for safety, said the agency is trying to proceed swiftly but that “this effort has been difficult, and has taken us longer than we wanted or expected.”

Currently, pilots are limited to 30 flight hours in any seven-day period, and to no more than eight flight hours in a day. Despite those limits, most aviation industry participants and safety experts say additional measures are needed to ensure that pilots are alert and rested.

Work days can last as long as 16 hours, including time on the ground, under FAA rules.

The new rules are expected to address the varying conditions pilots face, including red-eye flights that interrupt normal sleep patterns and the many take-offs and landings that pilots on short routes must execute during each work day.

John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, told lawmakers at the hearing, “We receive daily reports of scheduling that causes pilots to be virtual ‘zombies.’ “

Captain Prater said that during his own flying career he sometimes resorted to a homespun fatigue-fighting trick: biting into a fresh lemon shortly before landing.

Several concerns drew attention from lawmakers and aviation experts at Tuesday’s hearing:

  • Commuting by flight crews. Members of Congress called for new rules to set some guidelines regarding the long commutes (often by air rather than car) that pilots often have before they go to work. This may have been a problem for the Colgan Air flight crew, one of whom flew from Seattle and the other from Florida before going on duty in Newark, N.J.

Regulators and industry representatives say it’s a difficult issue to regulate. Prater said that pilots lack access to adequate “sleep rooms” in airports, and that airlines don’t cover hotel costs in the city where pilots come on duty.

  • The role of naps. Panelists at the hearing said “controlled rest,” during which one person on the flight deck naps while the other stays awake, could help alleviate fatigue. But they said this should be a last resort, not a routine plan.
  • Differences between large and small airlines. Prater said new rules should cover all types of commercial pilots, whether on large or small flights and whether they fly passengers or cargo.

William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said that, in addition to uniform rules for the industry, large airlines might be able to implement more sophisticated “fatigue risk management systems.”

Dorgan cited safety concerns with small regional airlines, not just because of pilots doing more takeoffs and landings but also because of lower pay and less training.

“You have less experience in the cockpit,” he said.

Congress is considering legislation to boost the flight hours and training required of new commercial pilots.

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