WASHINGTON – Questions arose Tuesday about whether the Federal Aviation Administration will be successful in drawing up guidelines to fight pilot fatigue.
Sen. Byron Dorgan,D-N.D.,and other Commerce,Science and Transportation Committee members questioned aviation officials about combating drowsiness in the cockpit.
Dorgan said 223 people have died in 20 crashes due to pilot fatigue in the last 20 years.
Peggy Gilligan,FAA associate administrator for aviation safety,said her agency is pushing back its Jan. 1 deadline for releasing pilot fatigue guidelines to Jan. 31. She said more research is needed. After that,the guidelines will be reviewed by the FAA and several other agencies.
“We need to get it right this time,” she said.
Dorgan said he isn't surprised with the delay,but he is disappointed. Two previous attempts to update fatigue guidelines failed in the 1990s. Flight time limits on international and cargo flights were last updated in 1954.
“We appreciate that you've started the process,but what's more important is that you finish the process,” he said.
According to current FAA regulations,domestic pilots are generally limited to eight hours of flight time per day and are required to get eight continuous hours of sleep every 24 hours. International flight regulations are more complex and vary depending on the length of the flight. However,crews are required to designate rest times outside of the cockpit for flights longer than 12 hours.
The committee is scheduled to hear from FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt next week.
Pilot fatigue has come to the forefront of aviation safety after the February crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Buffalo,N.Y.,which was operated by Colgan Air,a regional airline. Although the FAA hasn't finished its investigation of the crash,pilot fatigue appears to be a factor.
Another incident in October,in which distracted pilots overflew Minneapolis,their destination, by 150 miles was also discussed.
Capt. John Prater,president of the Air Line Pilots Association International,said he's experienced pilot fatigue himself,once after flying five days straight. Because the last flight was several minutes under eight hours,two pilots were required rather than three.
He said tricks to stay awake are common among pilots. He would bite into a freshly cut lemon five minutes before landing during long trips to jolt his body awake,he said.
“That's pushing your body way too far,” he said.
Low starting wages,inadequate sleeping quarters,long travel time to work and work-time napping were other subjects of concern.
The FAA is not examining some issues related to fatigue,Gilligan said. They include exceedingly long commutes to work – the Buffalo pilots traveled from Washington and Florida to New Jersey to work – and allowing pilots to nap during long flights.
Instead,Gilligan said the guidelines will focus more on pilots' duty hours,looking closely at each pilot's number of take-offs and landings and the time of day of flights.
As to “controlled rest,” or napping,which has been used on international flights since 1994,Gilligan said it is the flight crews' responsibility to come to work fully rested.
Basil Barimo,Air Transport Association of America vice president of operations and safety,said napping isn't the only option to fight fatigue.
“We don't view napping as a silver bullet for fatigue,” he said. “It's a way to manage fatigue as it happens in a real-time basis.”
The long commute times are simply a reality of the profession,Prater said.
He said regional airlines,which conduct 50 percent of flights and transport 25 percent of passengers each year,often move a pilot's home base. He said one pilot he knew encountered five base moves in a year.
Prater said in-flight sleeping quarters for pilots are poor.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg,D-N.J.,said too much is demanded of pilots,with too many hours of work on too little sleep.
“The slightest tip on this delicate balancing act can cause disaster,” he said. “It's the holiday season. Planes are packed. The last thing a traveling family wants to think about is a sleepy pilot.”