Posted by: Korry | January 5, 2012

No Sleepy Pilots For You!!

Let me guess: you don’t want sleepy pilots…and neither do I!! Anytime you step aboard an airliner, you place your life in the hands of the two pilots at the controls. You have every right to expect that those pilots are well rested regardless of whether the flight is in the morning, the afternoon, or even the middle of the night.

Unfortunately, being rested after dealing with time zone changes and constantly changing schedules can make that task difficult. Even though pilots are professionals and try their best to be well rested for every flight, they’re not machines; they’re humans. They cannot sleep on demand. And the current regulations governing how much pilots can fly are antiquated remnants from a bygone era of aviation where jet travel and jet lag weren’t much of an issue.

Thankfully, the FAA issued [long awaited] new rules last month that are based on the science of sleep (Read the FAA press release and final rules here). I believe these new rules will serve to better address the fatigue realities of airline flying and improve flight safety.

As I read the new rules, it seems the FAA has made several fundamental changes to the way pilots are scheduled.

First, the new rules place tighter limits on a pilot’s “duty day,” or the time from when a pilot checks in for his first flight of the day until the end of his last flight of the day even with unexpected delays. The current limit is 16 hours. The new rule, however, recognizes that pilot fatigue increases based on the time of day as well as the number of flights per day and thus adjusts maximum duty day limits accordingly. For instance, if a pilot starts work in the morning and only flies one flight, the duty day limit could be 14 hours, but start work late at night and fly multiple flights and the limit may shrink to 9 hours. To me, this just makes sense. I should point out that for long flights that are augmented (that is, one or two extra pilots to allow for rest breaks in flight), the duty day is adjusted up.

Additionally, the FAA also changed the maximum allowable flight time per day. The current rule is 8 hours of scheduled flight time per day for a normal two-pilot crew. The current rule, however, does not set actual flight time limits, so if a pilot is legal to start the day, he or she is also legal to finish, regardless of delays so long as the pilot remains within the 16 hour duty day. The new rule, which takes effect in two years, will make that 8 hour limit a hard 8 hour limit (9 hours if starting at a normal hour of the day). No more “legal to start, legal to finish.”

While this rule makes sense, the practical implications of this rule may be far-reaching. For instance, airlines will need to plan a buffer in each pilot’s daily schedule to allow for possible delays. I can foresee situations where a pilot is supposed to fly from, say, New York to Texas and back, but due to a winter storm and lengthy de-icing delays on the ground, the pilot will now be illegal for the return trip. Will the airlines be forced to cancel more flights? How will they determine staffing requirements? What costs will that mean for the airline and ultimately the passengers?

The last main change deals with rest periods between duty periods. Currently, rest can be reduced to as little as 8 hours. That isn’t 8 hours at a hotel, fast asleep. That’s 8 hours between when the airplane door opens at a gate, the flight crew leaves the airport, travels to a hotel, checks in, goes to the room, gets ready for bed, sleeps, gets up, gets ready, travels back to the airport and begins their work day. This rule has always seemed a bit crazy to me as there is just no possible way a pilot is going to get more than a few hours of sleep in this scenario. The new rule again uses sound reasoning and increases minimum rest to 10 hours. This should help to ensure that pilots truly get “8 hours behind the door” of the hotel room.

To say these new rules were long overdue is an understatement. Managing fatigue is by far the most difficult day-to-day part of being an airline pilot. There will be growing pains as the rules are implemented. There will be additional costs to the airlines and to passengers. There may even be pilots who don’t like that their schedules will be built with a lower average daily flight time (since pilots are paid by the hour and like to pack as much flying in a day as possible).

The bottom line is that flight safety will be unquestionably improved. And to me, that is definitely worth the cost.

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  1. […] barely enough time to go to the hotel and get a few hours to sleep. Thankfully, the new rest rules should provide some relief […]

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