FAA unveils new pilot fatigue rules

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hailed new rules for pilot scheduling Wednesday that were spurred by a plane crash almost three years ago, but agreed with the families of victims that they had taken too long to be finalized. 

LaHood argued Wednesday the new rules for pilot scheduling were a "big deal." 

"What we did in three years is more than what does in the previous 21 years," he said during a news conference at the Department of Transportation's headquarters in Washington. 

LaHood also said it had taken "too long" to enact the changes, but he quickly added "these things always take too long" in reference to the federal regulatory process. 

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday it had finalized changes to pilot scheduling that families of the victims of Continental Airlines Flight 3407 have been pushing for since accident inspectors ruled that fatigue had been a factor in the crash. Flight 3407 crashed as it approached the airport in Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009.  

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"This is as far as our government have ever gone to send a message to the flying public that we're serious about safety," LaHood said. "We have more work to do, but we've done a lot with this rule."  

Under the new rules, pilots would be required to get at least 10 hours of off-duty time between flight schedules, which transportation officials said would give them at least the opportunity to get eight hours of sleep before they get to the cockpit.

Pilots would also be limited to no more than nine hours of "flight time," which is considered by the FAA to be any time an airplane is moving on its own power, even if it is on the ground at airport. Pilots would also be limited to 28 working days in a month.

Airlines will be given two years to comply with the new rules, which LaHood also defended because he said transportation officials "wanted to do it right" when implementing the new procedures. 

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the new rules were an improvement, but were insufficient. 

“While the final rule provides improvement for aviation safety, pilots must take personal responsibility for coming to work rested and fit for duty. The government cannot put a chocolate on every one of their pillows and tuck them in at night," he said. 

The lobbying group formed to represent the families of the Flight 3407 accident in Washington, D.C., however, praised the new rules. 

"In the wake of the tragic and preventable crash of Continental (now United) Flight 3407 operated by Colgan Air, the 'Families of Flight 3407' have made over forty trips to Washington to advocate for a true 'One Level of Safety' between regional and major passenger airlines, in the face of heavy industry resistance to their efforts," the organization said in an email to supporters Wednesday morning.

"The NTSB investigation into the crash revealed serious flaws in the training and safety practices of some of the nation's regional carriers, and led Congress to unanimously pass P.L. 111-216 to address these issues," the organization continued.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the ranking member of the House Aviation subcommittee, agreed with LaHood that Wednesday's announcement of the new pilot rules was significant.

"This is a day that will go down in aviation safety history," he said in a statement released by his office. "This rule will improve safety for all air travelers and emphasizes the critical need to have rested, alert pilots in the cockpit.”
 
Costello said the new rules did not mark the end of the effort to improve the safety of the airplanes, though.

“We have to be vigilant about aviation safety every day,” he said. “This process is not over, as the rule must be implemented, and I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress, the Colgan families and industry stakeholders to ensure that this process is completed.”

Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta added that individual pilots will have to do their part too.

"People need to act responsibility during their time off to make sure they show up for work fit for duty," Huerta said.

"And if they're fatigued, they need to let someone know," he added.

The new rules will initially only be applied to commercial airplane pilots. LaHood said Wednesday he would continue to push to have them adopted for cargo pilots as well.