Airlines will have two years to implement sweeping changes to pilot rest rules as part of a final pilot fatigue rule for passenger-carrying airlines released by the US Federal Aviation Administration on 21 December.

US Transportation Department secretary Ray LaHood called the new science-based rules, 25 years in the making, a "landmark safety achievement" that guarantee pilots "have the opportunity to have proper rest before entering the cockpit".

LaHood credited the families of crew and passengers on the ill-fated Colgan Air Q400 crash in Buffalo, New York in February 2009 for spearheading the effort to address fatigue. Although US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did not conclude that fatigue as a casual factor in the loss-of-control crash, which killed all 49 on the aircraft and one on the ground, officials considered fatigue to be a likely a factor.

"What we did in the three years after Colgan was a lot more than what was done in the 21 years," said LaHood, referring to pushback from airlines that thwarted previous attempts to adjust pilot duty time rules over that time.

Airlines for America (A4A), previously known as the Air Transport Association of America, in September had said the rule, as first proposed one year ago, would cost airlines $2 billion to implement and could result in 12,000 to 27,000 direct US airline jobs being eliminated as well as up to 400,000 related industry positions. Officials today were evaluating the final rule to evaluate how any changes would effect its earlier analysis.

The FAA in its economic analysis of the final rule said the mandate will cost $297 million to implement but will have economic benefits ranging from $247 million to $470 million over a 10-year period.

The savings, through airline accidents averted, will in theory come through requirements of the new rule, which seeks to address cumulative fatigue.

Key elements of the rule include requiring a minimum 10h rest period before a flight, up 2h from the current rule; defining flight duty time to include deadheading, simulator training and other duties as assigned by the airline, and requiring pilots to have at least 30h consecutive duty-free time on a weekly basis, a 25% increase from current rules. There are also new monthly limits and a stipulation that a pilot sign off on the flight plan before a flight that he or she is fit for duty. Airlines will be required to switch out pilots who have determined they are not fit for duty.

The new rules do not address pilots who commute long distances to work and does not apply to cargo carriers and air taxi companies. LaHood said the rule was "too costly" to justify the benefits for the cargo sector, though he said he would be inviting the chief executives of cargo companies "to my office" in early January to ask them to voluntarily adopt the rule.

The Air Line Pilots Association, while reacting positively to most elements of the rule, said it was disappointed that "cargo operations are being held to a lesser standard" by not being included in the mandate.

The UPS pilots union was more pragmatic, saying LaHood's plan to get cargo carriers to voluntarily opt-in "makes as much sense as allowing truckers to 'opt-out' of drunk driving laws."

"To potentially allow fatigued cargo pilots to share the same skies with properly rested passenger pilots creates an unnecessary threat to public safety," said Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS pilots. "We can do better."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news