- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday issued new rules aimed at preventing airline pilots from flying while dangerously fatigued, a move safety advocates have been urging for more than two decades.

The rules update current pilot work-schedule regulations, which largely date back to the 1960s, to reflect studies on how much time pilots need for rest and an understanding of how travel through time zones and the human body clock’s response to light and darkness can affect performance.

Carriers have two years to adapt to the new rules. The FAA estimated the cost to industry at $297 million over 10 years, a fraction of the $2 billion a year that an airline trade association had estimated a draft proposal released by FAA over a year ago would cost.

The airline industry opposed the draft rule as too costly for the safety benefits it would achieve. But FAA officials made substantial changes to the final rule to lower the cost. Several expensive reporting and training requirements were eliminated.

The new rules come nearly three years after the deadly crash of a regional airliner flown by two exhausted pilots. Family members of the 50 people killed in the accident near Buffalo, N.Y., have lobbied relentlessly for more stringent regulations.

** FILE ** Flames erupt after Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, N.J., crashed into a house near Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009.
** FILE ** Flames erupt after Continental Connection Flight 3407 from Newark, ... more >

The rules should be named in honor of those families who pushed successfully for action, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a news conference. “This is a big deal,” Mr. LaHood said. “This is as far as our government has ever gone” to protect the traveling public from pilot fatigue.

The rules would limit the maximum number of hours a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty — including wait time before flights and administrative duties — to between nine and 14 hours. The total depends upon the time of day pilots begin their first flight and the number of time zones crossed.

The maximum amount of time pilots can be scheduled to fly is limited to eight or nine hours, and pilots would get a minimum of 10 hours to rest between duty periods, a two-hour increase over the old rules. Pilots flying overnight would be allowed fewer working hours than pilots flying during the day.

But cargo carriers — who do much of their flying overnight when people naturally crave sleep — are exempted from the new rules. The FAA said forcing cargo carriers to reduce the number of hours their pilots can fly would be too costly compared to the safety benefits.

Imposing the rules on cargo airlines such as Federal Express or United Parcel Service would have added another $214 million to the cost, FAA officials said.

The exemption for cargo carriers runs counter to the FAA’s goal of “one level of safety” across the aviation industry. Pilots unions were critical of the exemption, pointing out that cargo pilots suffer from fatigue the same as pilots for passenger-carrying airlines. And, while cargo planes aren’t carrying passengers, the risk to the public on the ground from an airplane crash is just as great.

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

Mr. LaHood said he plans to invite top officials from cargo airlines to meet with him next month so that he can urge them to voluntarily follow the new rules.

The charter airlines that transport nearly 90 percent of U.S. troops around the world also had lobbied heavily for an exemption to the new rules, saying military missions could be jeopardized, but FAA officials rejected those pleas.

The rules will prevent about 1½ accidents a year and an average of six deaths a year, FAA officials said. They also will improve pilots‘ health, officials said.

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