(Flight Simulator X screen grab by Jim Park)
Just a few days ago, the Federal Aviation Administration put into effect new "hours of service" rules for passenger carrying commercial pilots in scheduled airline service. Like our new HOS rules, the FAA's new rules are supposedly science-based. And like ours, the new FAA rule was met with some controversy -- the pilots' unions like the rule, but the airlines say it will create a shortage of pilots and drive up recruiting, training and scheduling costs.
The rules come after years of debate over aircrew rest requirements. And interestingly, FAA faced an uphill battle in convincing industry the rule was necessary as commercial aviation have just logged the safest decade in its history. Many critics of the rule change argued that with the lowest crash rate ever, there's apparently little need to fix what doesn't appear to be broken. Sound familiar?
There were, however a few eyebrow raising events during the time the changes were under discussion. Several crews apparently overflew their destinations because they were allegedly asleep in the cockpit; crews landed and took off from the wrong runways and even a taxiway or two; and there were numerous near misses in the air and on the ground, all attributed to fatigued -- that is, inattentive -- pilots. In FAA's opinion, "safest decade" didn't necessarily mean a safe decade.
Then in February 2009, Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed at Buffalo, N.Y. While fatigue was not officially listed as a contributing factor in the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board indicated it likely contributed to the ill-fated pilots' actions on the flight deck that eventually caused the crash. The investigation revealed both crew members had had only a fraction of the sleep they should have had in the 72 hours prior the crash resulting in a high level of cumulative fatigue.
Each pilot was compliant with current duty requirements and limits, but simply had not had enough proper restorative sleep in the days preceding the crash.
The New Rules
Following some significant changes to FAA's original Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued in 2010, the final rule that emerged forced substantial change on airlines and pilots. The on-duty window was reduced from about 16 hours to just eight or nine hours (depending on the duty cycle and time of day). They require a pilot take at least 30 consecutive hours off duty in any 7-day period. And they require at least 10 hours off duty between what they call flight duty periods with the opportunity for a minimum of eight hours of sleep during that period.
After dark, contrary to our circadian clocks, is the riskiest time to be at the controls. (Photo by Jim Park)
That last bit is significant. The previous rules required only eight hours off. For pilots, that meant eight hours from the time they walked off the flight deck of the last trip of the day until they reported for duty for the first flight of the next day. You can imagine how much time that left for sleep. Taking a shuttle to and from the hotel, a meal or maybe two, a little time to check email, call home, watch a little TV to relax, a shower and maybe a shave, and then back into the cockpit for another 16-hour day.
The rule doesn't literally cut a pilots' availability for work from 16 hours to eight or nine. Rather, it moves away from what could be called a 16-hour window of opportunity in favor of limiting their flight duty time (time spent preparing for and making a flight) to eight or nine hours. It also removes the weekly cumulative hours restrictions in favor of limits to the number of flight duty hours. These limits are based on research FAA claims accounts for the number of take off and landings in a workday, the time of day and even the number of time zones a pilots crosses during a trip.
The rule also makes some changes to the duty and rest requirements for different types of operation, such as commuter and short-haul flights versus overseas, cross-country, etc. as well as daytime versus nighttime flying.
Forget the Logbooks
Pilots do not carry logbooks for the purposes of enforcement the way truck drivers do. The air carrier tracks pilots' hours and accounts for available hours when scheduling trips. It's obviously illegal for a carrier to overbook a pilot, so that seldom happens. On the other hand, it's not uncommon during difficult situations, like when bad weather sets in, for a crew to walk away from a scheduled flight because they may not have the hours to legally complete the mission. That leaves behind a lot of hostile passengers.
The rules now have some built in flexibility so pilots can exceed their hours under extenuating circumstances. They have to give that extra time back at some point, but it relieves airlines of some difficult decisions at difficult times.
The rule also speaks to pilots' obligation to get the rest they need during their breaks. FAA says it will not be spying on what pilots do while in their hotel rooms, but flight crews are required to evaluate their fitness for duty upon reporting for work the next day. It should be noted that Fatigue Management training is currently included in pilots' regular training regimen, so presumably they would be in a position to make that assessment.
Interestingly, these new rules won't apply to cargo carriers like UPS, FedEx and others that spend much of their time flying at night. This has angered the pilots' unions, but FAA said the cost to that industry would simply be too high to justify.
Compared to trucking's HOS rules, these new rules for passenger carrying airline pilots are vastly more complicated than our rules (I have just skimmed the surfaced and paraphrased some of what will change). But since enforcement isn't really a consideration in the way it is in trucking -- where the rules had to be simplified (at truckers' expense) for ease of enforcement -- the pilots' rules could be almost surgically tailored for various types of operations. Good for FAA, bad on FMCSA.
And that raises a question about the way we comply with the rules. It's a given that trucking will soon have a near-universal mandate for electronic logging devices of some kind, yet the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration appears bent on maintaining nearly all of the current (and totally outdated) substantiating requirements of HOS such as corroborating documentation, GPS or satellite positioning data, and more that really is no longer strictly necessary.
It's also obvious that "cheating" will become much more difficult with the e-devices. And, since the e-logs will have to capable of adopting to at least a couple of different operating environments, i.e., the U.S. and Canadian rules, I wonder why the e-logs can't be set up to allow for different types of operation that would benefit from varying regulations -- such as team driving, overnight driving, local driving, long-haul driving, etc. Our one-size-fits-all rules do not work for every application, but the agency decided at the behest of enforcement that the rules be made universal to ease the confusion at roadside.
Certain sectors would certainly benefit from slightly different applications of the rule, and it would be easy to build in some flexibility like a "use-it-today, give-it-up-tomorrow" provision so drivers aren't left high and dry short of parking or stranded at a customer's dock.
The margin of error at 0 feet AGL leaves no margin for fatigue-induced mistakes. (Photo by Jim Park)
It seems to me aviation is making the best of the available science and using technology to support the solution. Trucking, on the other hand, is forcing even more restrictiveness into its rule and further limiting drivers' options when a very easy solution has already presented itself.
There are many similarities between truckers and pilots, but the one thing that sets them apart is the margin for error. Things rarely go wrong for pilots at 35,000 feet about sea level. If they did, there would still be plenty of time in most cases to solve the problem. The most demanding periods of a pilot's work shift are take-offs and landings, which occupy only a small part of the trip. Alertness at those times is paramount.
Truckers, on the other hand, spend 11 hours everyday separated from potential calamity by just a few feet of fresh air. The few milliseconds it takes for things to go horribly wrong demand that truckers be in a high state of alertness every moment of the day. We deserve better rules than we have, and we deserve a regulator that is less concerned about politics than it is about real safety.