US airlines urge FAA to overhaul proposed pilot fatigue rules

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FAA's new proposed rule to alter flight duty and rest regulations to combat fatigue has incited a scathing reaction from US lobbying group the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), which calls the proposal "operationally onerous", warns that implementation will prove far more costly than is estimated, and says the document should be significantly revised.

In July 2009, in the aftermath of a deadly Colgan Air Q400 crash that trained the spotlight on pilot fatigue issues, the FAA established the Flight and Duty Time Limitations and Rest Requirements aviation rulemaking committee (ARC), which provided a forum for airlines, labour and FAA representatives to give extensive input on revising current flight and duty time limitations regulations.

With guidance from ARC, the FAA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that seeks to give pilots the right to decline an assignment if they feel fatigued, increases to nine hours from eight hours the rest time that must be taken before arriving for duty to duty by one hour to nine hours and introduces different fatigue management requirements based on time-of-day, number of scheduled segments, flight types, time zones and likelihood that a pilot is able to sleep.

In addition to the ARC, the recently passed airline safety and FAA extension act of 2010 mandates that the agency issue a final rule on pilot fatigue by 1 August 2011.

Responding to the FAA's NPRM, the ATA in an exhaustive report says the consequence "of these scientifically and operationally unjustified requirements", is that "the proposed rule, taken as a whole, is operationally onerous with duplicative measures that do little to mitigate fatigue or increase safety beyond what the core elements provide."

It adds: "FAA has promulgated a rule that treats the airline industry as operating under a single model instead of a complex industry with a variety of models and operating environments and demands. It treats broad scientific principles that should be applied differently to different operating environments as specific operational limits and applies them uniformly notwithstanding the weight of scientific support for different approaches to different demands."

Furthermore, the ATA argues that the FAA ignores the operational experience of the international airline community. "Neither the United Kingdom's CAP-371 regulation nor the European Union's Subpart Q regulation, for example, has a daily flight time limit. This is because the body of scientific research and literature demonstrates that in the face of a reasonable FDP [flight duty period], a daily limit is duplicative and unnecessary."

The FAA estimates the cost of the rule to be $1.25 billion over ten years. "This calculation is off by a magnitude of 15," says the ATA, which pins the actual nominal cost - including direct passenger costs of at least $3.14 billion over ten years - at $19.6 billion over ten years.

ATA president and CEO James May says: "We are very concerned that the proposed rule reflects a lack of understanding by FAA of how airlines operate. Our concerns are validated by the fact that FAA's economic analysis is off the mark by at least a factor of 15 in its impact assessment, making it imperative that this proposal be significantly revised."

The Regional Airline Association (RAA), meanwhile, is also recommending that the FAA employ "science-based revisions that will ensure airline flight crews are rested and safe".

It notes that an RAA-sponsored, independent fatigue study, currently underway by Washington State University's Sleep and Performance Research Center, "should provide ground-breaking science focused on multi-segment airline operations".