Sleep cycle factors strongly in new ALPA pilot fatigue policy

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Natural circadian rhythms factor strongly in a new, potentially landmark pilot fatigue policy that has been adopted by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in advance of an expected proposed rule from the FAA.

Tailored to take into account the latest science on how pilots deal with fatigue and maintain maximum alertness, the policy sets specific goals for flight-time/duty-time regulatory reform and for negotiating rules on scheduling in future pilot contracts, says ALPA, noting that reform is already under way in the United States "and likely to follow in Canada".

Among other approaches, the policy uses the time of day when a pilot reports for flight duty to determine the appropriate flight-duty period length. For example, a 13-hour flight-duty period that includes a nine-hour flight-time limit would comply with ALPA's new policy for pilots who report for work between 0700 and 1259 and will fly one to four legs during that duty period.

On the other hand, says ALPA, the new policy would set a maximum flight-duty period of nine hours with a limit of seven hours of flight time for pilots who report to work between 00:00 midnight and 03:59 "because the duty period runs contrary to natural circadian rhythms".

The FAA in September issued a safety alert calling on airlines and air taxi operators to review their existing policies and procedures aimed at preventing flight crew fatigue for short-haul flights.

The interim action comes as the agency considers potential pilot rest rule changes developed by an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC). Efforts to overhaul the decades-old rules gained traction in June after pilot fatigue was identified as a potential factor in the February crash of a Colgan Air Q400 commuter aircraft.

"We won't know what is in the FAA's proposed rule until it is published. But if the FAA considers ALPA's new policy, and those of the other international aviation safety organizations, the result should be a regulation that sets the pace for progress in combating pilot fatigue around the globe," says ALPA president John Prater.

ALPA's executive board unanimously approved the union's new flight-time/duty-time limits and minimum rest requirements policy on 28 October after deliberation by pilots from regional, national, flag, and cargo airlines.