- Associated Press - Thursday, September 9, 2010

After a regional airliner crashed in western New York a year and a half ago, killing 50 people, the Obama administration promised swift action to prevent similar tragedies. High on the list: new rules governing the number of hours pilots may work in order to prevent tired flight crews from making fatal errors.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote in June 2009 that the Federal Aviation Administration was in a hurry and wouldn’t wait for Congress “to add mandatory layers to airline safety,” or for crash investigators to complete their work, “because air passengers deserve action. And, they deserve it now.”

It’s taken 15 months and a half-dozen missed deadlines, but the FAA is finally about to propose new regulations on how many hours airlines can schedule pilots to be on duty or in the cockpit. A draft was submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review last week, and a proposed rule is likely to be published within days, industry officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to address the issue publicly. A House hearing on the proposal is scheduled for next week.

Even when the new rules are proposed, it will likely be months - possibly even a year or longer - before they take effect. Pilot unions and relatives of crash victims who have been campaigning for the new rules said they’re troubled by the lengthy process when safety is at stake.

“You can’t be anything but concerned about the delays. This is supposedly [Federal Aviation Administration chief] Randy Babbitt’s number-one priority and something there has been a crying need for decades now,” said Kevin Kuwik, a spokesman for relatives of the victims of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo in February 2009. An NTSB investigation found that both pilots on the flight were probably experiencing fatigue, although that wasn’t a direct cause of the accident.

At a private meeting with White House officials in June, relatives were assured the issue is a priority, he said.

Transportation and FAA officials declined to discuss the reason for the delays. Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said only, “We are working as quickly as possible to get the proposal out for comment.”

Lawmakers, industry officials and union leaders familiar with the process say the difficulty is in demonstrating that the safety benefits of stricter rules on flight hours - lives saved and injuries avoided - would outweigh the cost of the rules to the struggling airline industry. Depending upon how they are written, new regulations could cost industry billions of dollars during the next decade.

The result, these insiders say, has been lengthy back-and-forth comment between the government and the industry.

Officials at airline trade associations say they haven’t been lobbying to block or delay new regulations. But the cost estimates that the airline industry has supplied the government amount to a kind of lobbying, said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat.

“I know for sure they are using the rule-making process to make their case,” said Mr. Oberstar, who has talked privately with Mr. Babbitt about the situation. He said one reason for the delay is that the FAA has been trying to “bullet-proof” the proposal against possible challenges.

“The companies don’t want any change that will cost them 10 cents,” Mr. Oberstar said. “That’s what it all comes down to.”

Tom Hendricks, vice president for the Air Transport Association, an organization of major air carriers, said he hasn’t seen either a draft proposal or cost estimates from the FAA. But he added, “We’re always very concerned about added costs without a demonstrable safety benefit.”

Current rules say pilots can be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty which means being at work, ready to fly and up to eight hours of actual flight time in a 24-hour period, with a minimum of eight hours for rest in between.

The rules don’t take into account that it can be more tiring for regional airline pilots to fly five or six short legs in six hours than it is for a pilot with a major airline to fly eight hours across the Atlantic to Europe, say, with only one takeoff and landing. Takeoffs and landings are usually the most strenuous aspects of flying.