Business group: Scrap pilot rest mandate

The nation’s largest business group is urging the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to reject a proposed regulation that is intended to guard against fatigue among pilots. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce preemptively pushed back against proposed Federal Aviation Administration regulations that would strengthen the rest requirement for flight crew-members.

“[The FAA’s proposed rule] should be precisely the kind of rule that the Obama Administration is targeting for reform,” Chamber Senior Vice President Randel Johnson said in a letter to Cass Sunstein, the director of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). “A rule that renders a vital industry unnecessarily inefficient and uncompetitive but that produces little or no benefit in the bargain.’”

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The rule, which is being prepared to undergo final review, is aimed at fighting fatigue of commercial pilots. If accepted by OIRA, it would set “new flight time, duty and rest requirements based on fatigue science,” according to an FAA 2010 press release.

While the Chamber sent the strong letter opposing the rule to Sunstein on Thursday, FAA is currently working to finalize it for OMB, so the current proposal is not available for public viewing. The most recent available proposed rule information is from the 2010 release.

“We’re waiting for the final rule to come out this August. There may be some differences. The big thrust is that the rules will be based on sleep science,” FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette told The Hill. “Some long haul flights, the commercial airlines will have to find ways to base … their scheduling practices using fatigue science.”

A nine-hour minimum opportunity for pilots to rest before reporting to “fl[y] an aircraft, operat[e] a simulator or operat[e] a flight training device” would be required. The new requirement would allow for eight hours of sleep, giving pilots one more hour than current regulations.

Each pilot would also get at least 30 consecutive hours per week of no-fly time to reduce fatigue, a 25 percent increase from current regulations. In addition, there would be 28-day and annual fly-time limits.

Finally, the rule would eliminate distinctions between domestic, international and unscheduled flights. Instead, the FAA would put in place requirements “based on the time of day and number of scheduled segments, as well as time zones, type of flights, and likelihood that a pilot is able to sleep under different circumstances.”

Pilot fatigue became a front line issue after the Colgan Air 3407 crash in February 2009. This proposal was created in accord with the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, requiring a fatigue rule to be in place by this August 1.

“I know firsthand that fighting fatigue is a serious issue, and it is the joint responsibility of both the airline and the pilot,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in the same press release. “After years of debate, the aviation community is moving forward to give pilots the tools they need to manage fatigue and fly safely.”

But the Chamber argues that the FAA is proposing a “one-size fits all solution” and that the administration did not consider alternative proposals.  In Johnson’s public comment on the rule, he suggests looking at proposals from “the Cargo Airline Association and the National Air Carrier Association, associations representing a significant number of small entities regulated by the regulations in question.”

The Chamber said the 2010 proposed rule would also lower competitiveness of United States airlines compared with foreign airlines. The new regulations would require airlines to change flight patterns and crew assignments, thereby hindering the efficiency offered by “state-of-the-art technology.”

One technology cited is an “extended range aircraft” that can fly longer distances non-stop, but would be hindered, Johnson said, by “the flight time limit of 16 hours.”

Monetary details clash from both sides, too. The Chamber calls the “adverse economic analysis” quantitatively “breathtaking.”

“The FAA itself has estimated that the monetary costs of the rule will exceed the value of any benefits by a factor of 2-to-1. But many parties have pointed to grave deficiencies in the FAA’s cost-benefit analysis,” Johnson said in the letter.

According to one economic expert, a more accurate ratio of costs to benefits is 50-to-1. For all-cargo airlines, each one dollar of benefits produced by the FDT rule has been estimated to impose a staggering $3,800 in costs.”

While the Chamber argues science does not support the new regulations, FAA says that the entire proposed rule is based off of the science of sleep. The rule would “reduce the effects of fatigue and improve alertness,” the release said.

“The new rules will better reflect the real world environment that the pilots are flying and the amount of sleep the pilot needs to fly in different flights,” Duquette told The Hill.