US senators urge FAA to study pilot commuting

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In the wake of the Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident, US lawmakers are urging regulatory authorities to study the impact of long-distance commuting on pilot fatigue.

During a recent hearing of the Senate commerce, science and transportation committee, Senators pressed officials from the US FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to undertake a widespread study of airline pilots to establish what connection, if any, exists between commuting pilots and fatigue.

Findings of the NTSB investigation following the February 2009 accident of a Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 that crashed on approach to Buffalo concluded that inappropriate pilot response to a stick shaker stall warning was found to be the probable cause of the accident.

Additionally, the NTSB found that the crew was "likely fatigued" at the time of the accident after the captain spent the two of the three nights prior to the crash sleeping in the airline's crew lounge and the first officer was commuting from her home in Seattle the night prior.

"Unfortunately, in the aviation industry, fatigue-related decisions by operators and pilots - such as minimum crew hires, flight crew schedules and commuting - are decisions that too often reflect the economics of the industry, rather than the data and science of fatigue and human performance," says NTSB.

"It seems unlikely to me that this is the only circumstance and maybe this has become a practice and this has to stop," says Subcommttee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-ND).

NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman explains the board esimated during its investigation that 70% of Colgan's pilots commuted to the airline's Newark Liberty International Airport base, and 20% were commuting from a distance of 1600km (1000 miles) or more.

"Until we know how widespread this is, we can't really fix the problem, and neither can the carriers" says Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC). "Just because the safety record is good, it doesn't mean the pilots are rested."

Peggy Gilligan, FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, acknowledges that the relationship between commuting and pilot fatigue is of great interest to regulators, but cautions that any potential rulemaking regarding pilot commuting must take into account pilot concerns about forced relocation that could cause personal and economic hardship.

As part of its investigation, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require all scheduled and non-scheduled operators to "address fatigue risks associated with commuting, including identifying the number of pilots who commute, establishing policy and guidance to mitigate fatigue risks, using scheduling practices to minimize opportunities for fatigue, and develop or identifying rest facilities for commuting pilots.