FAA Pilot Rest Requirements
On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549, a scheduled commercial passenger flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, Charlotte, North Carolina, onto the waters of the Hudson River after the plane, an Airbus A320-214, had been struck by a flock of birds which caused an immediate and complete loss of thrust in both engines. Had Capt. Sullenberger, and the crew of Flight 1549, not responded as they did, in a uniformly calm and cool manner while adhering to the tenets FAA safety regulations, there’s a decent chance that all of the 155 occupants aboard the Airbus 320 would not be with us today, and that this story of heroism, in the face of looming tragedy, would have a different ending (Sturcke, 2009).
On February 12, 2009, in the wake of the glee and excitement that followed Sullenberger’s heroic controlled ditch in the Hudson River, a small crew on Colgan Air Flight 3407, a flight from Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey to Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Buffalo, NY, faced a similarly perilous situation. Their plane – a 74-seat Bombardier DHC8-402 Q400 – started to drastically lose speed in the cold, frigid air of the Buffalo skyline. The plane’s pilot and copilot, who may have been suffering from sleep deprivation (fatigue), acted in the exact opposite way one is supposed to in a “stalling” situation. Instead of lowering the nose of the plane to gain speed and improve lift, the plane’s pilot, Capt. Marvin Renslow, ignored protocol and proceeded to raise the nose of plane, higher and higher, further slowing down the plane’s airspeed until it effectively stalled out and crashed, killing the 49 people on board along with one individual on the ground (NTSB, 2010).
This tragedy, the first fatal commercial plane crash in the United States in several years, compelled the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation to reexamine pilot polices and procedures for domestic and international flights. Following an investigation into the Colgan crash and after reviewing pilot policies and procedures, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood and FAA Administrator, Randolph Babbitt identified pilot fatigue as a top concern for airline safety. Shortly thereafter, Administrator Babbit championed several initiatives that would “specify limitations on the hours of pilot flight and duty time to address problems relating to pilot fatigue” (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Fatigue,” 2010).
It is the purpose of this paper to examine these proposed changes in pilot flight time and duty time as well as what factors precipitated these proposed changes. Additionally, this paper will weigh the costs of the proposed changes against the potential benefits to provide insight as to whether these changes will make a positive impact on the aviation industry. In short, assuming these new pilot rest regulations and fatigue mitigation strategies are adopted, will the airways actually be safer?
WHAT HAPPENED IN BUFFALO?
To understand the context of these proposed changes in pilot flight time and duty time it is helpful to understand what precipitated these proposed changes. Really, to consider whether or not these changes were thought through or if this is an example of a knee-jerk reaction by government bureaucrats. As with most things, the truth lies some where in the middle. That is to say, new polices concerning flight rest have been around for decades, the last proposal regarding a change in pilot rest was submitted in 1995. But in large part, due to Airline lobbyists, the ATA and a claimed lack of sufficient evidence to persuade the consensus that pilot fatigue was, indeed, an issue, these attempts by the FAA to change pilot rest policy were stymied (Brandon, 2000). However, one can also argue that these new policy changes represent the overreaching arm of government bureaucrats to “fix” a problem that becomes overblown due to recent events — in effect, making sure that no tragedy goes to waste.
To understand this tension between doing what is right because it is right and doing something for the sake of saying one did something, it would be helpful to revisit the Colgan crash in further detail.
Here is what one knows based upon the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. The turboprop, the Bombardier Q400, began to fly at a dangerously slow speed, 135 knots (250 km/h), at low altitude. When this happened, a safety device known as the “Stick Shaker” sounded. This is to alert the pilots that they are in a low speed condition. Instead of following the established procedures in a pre-stall situation, lowering the nose of the plane and adding power to pick up speed, Capt. Renslow did almost the opposite — he lifted the nose of the plane and only added 75% power. The plane slowed to 131 knots (243 km/h) and the last ditch safety device known as the “Stick Pusher” activated to lower the plane’s nose to prevent stalling. Capt. Renslow overrode the “Stick Pusher” and pulled on the control yoke attempting to lift the plane. The plane stalled – stalling is a loss of lift and increase in drag that occurs when an aircraft is flown at an angle of attack greater than the angle for maximum lift (NTSB 2010) — and roughly 26 seconds later the crew and the passengers of Colgan Air Flight 3407 (along with a civilian on the ground) were dead (NTSB 2010).
There where many questions following the crash. Obviously, the most pressing question was, what caused the crash? The NTSB, after their investigation, found the primary cause to be pilot error. In their detailed report they expound further:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the captain’s inappropriate response to the activation of the stick shaker, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which the airplane did not recover. Contributing to the accident were (1) the flight crew’s failure to monitor airspeed in relation to the rising position of the lowspeed cue, (2) the flight crew’s failure to adhere to sterile cockpit procedures, (3) the captain’s failure to effectively manage the flight, and (4) Colgan Air’s inadequate procedures for airspeed selection and management during approaches in icing conditions (NTSB, 2010).
Although there are several other reasons cited in the “probable cause” statement by the NTSB, pilot error (#3) is really the main reason 50 people lost their lives. One can try and argue that sterile cockpit procedures and Colgan Air’s inadequate training may have played a role, but at the end of the day, not following proper stall procedures is inexcusable. It’s also baffling for pilots to imagine why Capt. Renslow responded the way he did as gross pilot error of this caliber is not often seen. Michael Barr, at the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program had this to say, “It’s just the opposite of what any pilot would do” (Levin, 2009).
Capt. Renslow anomalous and head-scratching response to the pre-stall conditions left people — especially experts in the aviation industry – to speculate as to what caused him to respond in the manner he did. After all, what would compel a trained and experienced pilot to betray the fundamentals of aviation?
Some suggested he was a poor pilot. After all, Renslow had failed four previous Federal Aviation Administration check flights to determine whether he was qualified to fly. Moreoever, he had also failed an airline check in the past. Subsequenlty he passed each of the checks upon retaking the tests and the Colgan stated that his skills were adequate (Levin, 2009).
Henry Bowles, a pilot and aviation guru, had this to say about the crash, “Most pilots expected sleep deprivation to play the leading role in the Colgan 3407 accident. The industry has averaged nearly an accident a year for the past twenty years with fatigue listed as a contributing factor” (Bowles, 2010). However, despite this widely held position regarding fatigue being a factory, the NTSB board stated “The pilots’ performance was likely impaired because of fatigue, but the extent of their impairment and the degree to which it contributed to the performance deficiencies that occurred during the flight cannot be conclusively determined” (2010). In other words, fatigue probably played a factor, but the results are inconclusive.
Nevertheless, despite the inconclusive findings on fatigue as a causal factor in the Colgan crash, many people, including FAA Administrator Babbit believe that fatigue is still a serious issue. Administrator Babbit had this to say for an FAA press release, “I know firsthand that fighting fatigue is a serious issue, and it is the joint responsibility of both the airline and the pilot. After years of debate, the aviation community is moving forward to give pilots the tools they need to manage fatigue and fly safely” (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Fatigue,” 2010).
Is fatigue a serious issue for pilots? Well, for one thing, there are studies that demonstrate how the effects of fatigue can hamper an individual’s reaction time and decision-making ability. As Henry Bowles noted in his essay, “Numerous studies have concluded that significant sleep deprivation is equivalent to operating while under the influence of alcohol. The British Medical Journal concluded that, “after 17 — 19 hours without sleep, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, (up to 28 hours) performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects (BAC of 0.10%)” (Bowles, 2010). Studies such as this one help to illuminate the real dangers of piloting (or driving or operating heavy machinery) when one is suffering from sleep deprivation.
Yet what is unknown, and to circle back to the NTSB Board’s finding, is how much of a role sleep deprivation plays in airline crashes. In a paper written by Mark Brandon, an Airline Transport Pilot, he stated, “Seventy percent of the accidents in aviation are due to pilot error, and fatigue is a major cause of those errors” (Brandon, 2000). The problem with a statement like this is there is an assumption that fatigue was a major cause, even though there is no objective proof. Most pilots agree, and they would know better than anyone else, that fatigue is a concern, but it is a very difficult to measure a variable like pilot fatigue. This is in part because every pilot is different as far as his/her predilections for sleep requirements. And, additionally, in the majority of instances there is no way to know how tired and/or awake the pilot is at the time of the crash.
The FAA states, “Although sleep science is evolving, research has indicated that most people need eight hours of sleep in 24 hours to perform effectively, and the average person needs in excess of nine hours of sleep per night to recover from accumulated sleep debt” (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Fatigue,” 2010). Once can argue that this is a generality, but a good starting point for ensuring that pilot rest policy is finely tuned to the findings sleep science has uncovered.
Regardless of whether or not fatigue is a major cause in airline crashes, and regardless of whether or not new rest requirements will actually help mitigate airline accidents, change is on the horizon. The Colgan crash was enough of a lynchpin to precipitate policy change in the airline industry, assuming the FAA ratifies the new rule changes proposed in Administrator Babbitt’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) — (issued in Sept. 2010). The FAA will make a final ruling on the issue by August 1, 2011.
To recap a quick history, there was policy proposed in 1995 that would have specifically addressed some of the current concerns regarding pilot fatigue. As mentioned, due to lack of sufficient evidence and the lobbying power of the ATA, those early efforts to pass impactful polices were thwarted.
Prior to the Colgan crash, in June 2008, the FAA sponsored a fatigue symposium called the “Fatigue Symposium: Partnerships for Solutions.” This event was designed to incite a proactive response – within the airline industry – to pilot fatigue via new fatigue management and mitigation techniques (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Fatigue,” 2010). The event was limited to 300 attendees and may have been considered by some to be just another perfunctory event to create the illusion of doing something with regard to pilot fatigue.
One thing that is worth noting is the politics involved with FAA. At the time of the Colgan crash, February 2009, Administrator Babbitt had not yet assumed his position. According to the FAA website, the acting Adminstrator at the time of the crash was Lynne Osmus. One could argue that when Babbitt took office in June, 2009, he felt overly compelled to address safety concerns in the FAA. He wanted to put his stamp on things right away. So, not long after the NTSB published its report on the Colgan crash (Feb 2010), he issued the landmark Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Sept 2010).
OLD vs. NEW: WHAT ARE THE PROPOSED CHANGES?
Before one discusses the proposed changes in policy, it might be helpful to remind the reader of the nomenclature used in aviation, particularly with regards to flight time for a pilot vs. duty time for a pilot. Flight time is the actual time the pilot is flying the plane and duty time accounts for the whole time a pilot is on the job, from the moment the start his/her shift, till the moment the finish. With this issue clarified, here are the key changes purported in the new proposal:
The first is proposal addresses the universal nature of fatigue. The proposal would standardize rules for all types of Part 121 flights, (passenger and cargo airlines): domestic, flag international), or supplemental (unscheduled) (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Flight Time,” 2010). As it stands right now, not all types of Part 121 flights have the same rest policies. This would, in effect, make them congruent. This part of the proposal does not effect on Part 135 operators (commuter and on demand).
The new rules will account for an individual’s circadian rhythms and limit flight time and duty time accordingly. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism’s environment” (NIH, 2008). The current rules are not sensitive to an individual’s circadian rhythms.
The proposal unequivocally states that fatigue mitigation and management is a shared responsibility between the pilot and the airline. Moreover, a pilot shall not accept an assignment if he/she is considered to be “too” fatigued to fly (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Flight Time,” 2010).
The proposal allows each airline to determine and create its own Fatigue Risk Management system that would clearly set out an airline’s policies and procedures for fatigue mitigation and management. However, each system or plan is subject to the review and approval of the FAA. Additionally, ongoing fatigue education and awareness training will be conducted (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Flight Time,” 2010).
As far as pilot rest is concerned, the FAA suggests a new minimum number of rest hours prior to flying related duty. The current rules are 8 hours of rest. The FAA hopes to up that to 9 hours of rest (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Flight Time,” 2010).
As for flight time, which functions on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis the proposal makes the following suggestions, a 25% increase in the number of free hours from duty. Under the current rules a pilot gets 24 consecutive hours free from duty per week. The proposed rules would change this to 30 consecutive hours free from duty per week. For monthly flight time, the proposal opts for a maximum 100-hours of flight time in any 28 days. The current rules say 100-hours of flight time in any 30 days. And lastly, the yearly limit for domestic flights, 1,000 hours in any calendar year, will be extended to all types of operations, not just domestic (Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Flight Time,” 2010).
Finally, the proposal seeks to limit the current 16-hour duty period (between rest). The proposal would decrease duty time to 13-hours, which could slide to nine hours at night, contingent on take-off time and number of segments scheduled ((Dorr & Duquette, “Pilot Flight Time,” 2010).
COSTS AND BENEFITS
After reviewing the proposed changes in the NPRM, one can see that the FAA is not suggesting a few minor policy adjustments, rather, the FAA is lobbying for a complete overall of the existing scheduling system. Airlines will now have to create and integrate Fatigue Risk Management Systems into their scheduling systems (P. Gilligan, Testimony, September 16, 2010), both flight and duty time hours will be shortened while rest requirements will be protracted, costly fatigue mitigation training will take place and implicit in all of this, is the fact that airlines will have to adjust to these new regulations by hiring new personnel to cover the gaps caused by the restrictions. And expanding the workforce of an airline means higher costs and less revenue. One can assume, due to the relatively recent struggles of many airlines to remain solvent during times where fuel costs are relatively high and public demand for tickets is elastic, that the profit margin for many airlines is already very tight, and so to remain profitable these new costs will have to be shoveled back to the consumer. However, if the consumer is unwilling to purchase the tickets at the higher prices, then the airline will struggle to turn a profit. In short, either the consumer will be paying higher ticket prices so pilots are less likely to fall asleep at the helm or airlines will sacrifice profitability in an attempt to keep pilots awake during flights.
In her testimony before the House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Aviation on Pilot Fatigue, Peggy Gilligan, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, had this to say about the costs associated with the new proposal:
While we prefer and seek out regulatory options that result in net benefits, there is no absolute requirement that monetary benefits of regulatory proposals outweigh monetary costs. But the benefits, both quantifiable and nonquantifiable, must justify the associated costs. While we have explicitly sought public comments about possible improvements in the proposed rule, we believe it meets that standard. It is important to understand that increasing airline safety creates a number of important social benefits, some of which are hard to quantify (P. Gilligan, Testimony, September 16, 2010).
To explicate, Gilligan is saying that there is no imperative to have net gain in monetary benefits from these new regulations and restrictions. Instead, one should understand that safety, and the social benefits that come as a result, is (are) paramount to the amount of money spent on the implementation and compliance of the new rule(s). Well one can better understand her position if he/she reads the actual FAA Flightcrew Member Duty and Rest Requirement proposal (NPRM).
In the actual proposal itself the NPRM, there are some helpful numbers and estimates to give one a true sense of the costs and benefits included. For starters, the report estimates that the cost of the proposed rule is $1.25 billion for the ten-year period from 2013 to 2022 (Towles, NPRM, 2010). If the cost is $1.25 billion, what are the benefits?
Through simulations and extrapolations the report posits that if things remained unchanged one could expect 28.9 fatigue-related airplane accidents in the next ten-year period, which would result in roughly 174.7 deaths and would cost 1.581 billion dollars. Given these numbers alone, one would be inclined to side with FAA and endorse the new rule(s) (Towles, NPRM, 2010).
However, a closer examination might make one more skeptical about these putative benefits and net cost benefits. For example, the root problem with simulations like the one stated above is it’s betrayed by caveats such as the following, “fatigue is rarely a primary or sole cause of an accident, and therefore this rule, if adopted, is not likely to prevent all future accidents that include fatigue as a factor” (Towles, NPRM, 2010). The truth is that over the past 20 years, there have been only 18 aviation accidents caused by pilot error where fatigue was listed as a factor (Towles, NPRM, 2010). And again, as the caveat states, fatigue is rarely a primary or sole cause of an accident.
Additional skepticism about this proposal lies in the unknowns and uncertainties surrounding the impact this plan will have on the airline industry. For example, the FAA estimates that if the changes are implemented it will negatively effect small entity operators, “Overall the disproportionate impact is likely to weaken small entity operators’ competitive situation, but the FAA is unable to provide a measure of how much” (Towles, NPRM, 2010). So here is a potentially costly unknown, the very real possibility that small airline operators will lose their competitive edge in the marketplace. In addition to this unknown, there is complete uncertainty as to how this proposed rule(s) will effect the larger airlines, “While the preceding discussion points out potential impacts of the proposed rule on the competitiveness of small entities, the FAA is uncertain about the impact it has on the level of competition within the U.S. airline industry” (Towles, NPRM, 2010). In short, one knows it will adversely affect the competitive edge of the smaller operators, but what one doesn’t know is to the extent it will adversely affect smaller operators and how drastically it will affect the competitive edge of the larger airlines.
One thing that can be said regarding the effect it will have on the larger airlines is relative to their demand elasticity. The proposal discusses demand elasticity as a factor, “A major criterion in a competitiveness analysis is the ability of an airline to pass on the costs imposed by the rule to their customers. The extent to which an airline can pass costs on to its customers is determined by the elasticity of demand of the service by the customer” (Towles, NPRM, 2010). The more elastic the demand is the less leverage an airline has over the customer and the more revenue the airline loses. To clarify, if an airline raises ticket prices to compensate for the costs associated with the extra personnel required to comply with the new rules and the fatigue training sessions, and demand is elastic, meaning the consumer is unwilling to pay the higher costs for tickets, then the airline must lower ticket costs to meet consumer demand and swallow the costs of the new rule(s). As previously discussed, consumer demand tends to be pretty elastic when it comes to airline ticket prices — a dangerous sign for an already struggling industry.
There is reason for skepticism and reluctance regarding these new rules and restrictions. But perhaps the biggest reason to be skeptical about the proposal has nothing to do with the proposal, itself; rather, it has to do with human nature — a constant that is impossible to completely control. One can have all the regulations and preventive measures in place to thwart drunk driving, but still, people are going to drive drunk. Likewise, with pilot fatigue, the FAA can go through with this $1.25 billion dollar reform and 10 years from now realize that all their fatigue mitigation and management policies were implemented in vain. That no matter what they do, pilots are going to fly fatigued and make mistakes. And this is just the inherent risk associated with flying. To give one an example, for the past decade, roughly 40,000 people died each year in the U.S. In an automobile accident. That number has not changed despite all the money and resources spent to make the highways a safer place “click it or ticket” campaigns, drunk driving awareness and policy changes, slower speed limits, etc. The question then becomes if one believes that spending $1.25 billion is going to make a real difference in correcting the fallible nature of human beings who are trained to fly planes? In a rather indirect way, Gilligan acknowledges this basic fact, she stated:
In the past, I have said something that is worth repeating now: regardless of what regulatory framework is in place, mitigating the effects of fatigue is a shared responsibility. The FAA has the responsibility to put the framework in place. The air carrier has the responsibility to schedule its flight crews responsibly and in accordance with that framework. The pilot has the ultimate responsibility to use the hours set aside for rest to actually rest, to report for duty in a fit condition, and to notify the airline when he or she is too fatigued or otherwise not fit for duty. Nothing about the latest proposal changes those basic responsibilities (P. Gilligan, Testimony, September 16, 2010).
It’s those two words in that one sentence that cuts to the whole heart of this issue; the pilot is “ultimately responsible.” It should be a rather simple directive, one that is well received and well understood. If you’re drunk, don’t drive a car; if you’re on medication, don’t operate heavy machinery; and if you’re tired, don’t fly a plane. But in life, all too often it’s the simplest things that give us the most trouble.
At the end of the day, the FAA will most likely adopt the changes. Billions of dollars will be spent in the name of improving safety. Yet, accidents will still happen. But hopefully, when one looks back 10 years from now, he/she will be able to say conclusively that these new pilot rest regulations were worthwhile.
Bowles, H. (2010, Feb. 8). Colgan Pilot Fatigue & NTSB. Better Job Safety. Retrieved from http://safetests.blogspot.com/2010/02/colgan-pilot-fatigue-ntsb.html
Brandon, M. (2000, Sept). The Effects of Fatigue On Performance And Safety. Airline Safety.Com. Retrieved from http://www.airlinesafety.com/editorials/PilotFatigue.htm
Dorr, L., Duquette, A. (2010, Sept. 16). Fact Sheet — Pilot Fatigue. Federal Aviation
Administration. Retrieved from http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=11857
Dorr, L., Duquette, A. (2010, Sept. 16). Fact Sheet — Pilot Flight Time, Rest, and Fatigue. Federal Aviation Administration. Retrieved from http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=6762
Hradecky, S. Crash: Colgan DH8D at Buffalo on Feb 12th 2009, Impacted Home While
on Approach. Aviation Hearld. Retrieved from http://avherald.com/h?article=414f3dbd/0037&opt=0
Levin, A. (2009, May 13). Buffalo crash: Pilots Acted ‘just opposite’ of Normal
Practices. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-05-12-buffalo-crash-side_N.htm
National Institute of General Medical Sciences. (2008). Circadian Rhythms Fact Sheet.
Retrieved from http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/Factsheet_CircadianRhythms.htm
National Transportation Safety Board. (2010, Feb.. 2) . Loss of Control on Approach,
Colgan Air, Inc.,Operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, Bombardier
DHC-8-400, N200WQ, Clarence Center, New York, February 12, 2009.
(NTSB/AAR-10/01). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Sturcke, J. (2009, Jan. 16). Profile: Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. Guardian Online
Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/17/hudson-plane-crash-pilot-sullenberger
Towles, R. (2010, Sept. 3). Flightcrew Member Duty and Rest Requirements Notice of Proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation
Administration. Retrieved from www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/…/FAA_2010_22626.pdf
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