Pilot Fatigue

Posted by lex, on September 10, 2010

The FAA is proposing new constraints on domestic and international airline operations of US flag carriers, by re-writing the length-of-day and turnaround rules:

Proposing the most far-reaching overhaul of government regulations to combat cockpit fatigue in several decades, the Federal Aviation Administration wants to bar commercial pilots from working longer than 15 hours at a stretch, or one hour less than currently permitted.

As part of a long-awaited rewrite of pilot scheduling rules slated to be released Friday, transportation officials said they also want to assure that each week, pilots get at least 30 consecutive hours of time off duty. That would be a 25% increase from current requirements.

In what may be the most controversial aspect of the proposed changes, the FAA envisions a single, consistent rule covering pilots on domestic and international routes, as well as most charter operations. Today, cargo and charter fleets operate under less-stringent pilot-scheduling rules than those that apply to mainline or commuter passenger carriers.

NASA, which runs the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) for the FAA reports that 21% of all self-reported incidents were induced by pilot fatigue. And while data on the percentage of actual mishaps attributable to pilot fatigue is a little harder to get at, it’s highly likely that the Colgan Air mishap outside Buffalo in 2009 gave fresh impetus to an old problem.

The NTSB has been concerned about aircrew fatigue since at least 1990, when the issue was placed on bureau’s “most wanted” list. The FAA proposed a rule change back in 1995, but although various systematic approaches to detecting and managing fatigue risk have been initiated, the underlying rules have not been changed, until now, nor were passenger carrier limitations placed upon cargo haulers.

Expect the airline industry to fight this rule change vigorously. Most major carriers use complex mathematical models to help manage their crew duty and flight hours, nearly to perfection. The “goesouta” of that model is on-time departures, but the “goesinta” is number of flight crews, with major constraints being duty, flight and rest hours, which fluctuate across various time spectra from 7 to 30 days. If you raise the model’s constraints, you up the goesinta count – more pilots – and flight crew are a significant cost driver for an industry that has been running on profit margins that are well lean of peak.

When it comes to safety, more is almost always better – you have to have enough hours per crew to remain proficient. But ultimately, the only way to completely prevent mishaps is to chock and chain all aircraft to the deck. In which case you’ve still got to worry about rogue tractor drivers.

How will this impact you, the airline passenger? You’ll reduce your risk of dying in an airplane from 1 in 11 million (you’re much more at risk driving to the airport) to something slightly less than that.

There’s just about a 100% chance that you’ll pay more for what you’re already getting, of course.

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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Flying

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