A recent USA Today article delved into the major factor that undermines airline safety; that, of course, is pilot fatigue. A poll they conducted revealed that one-quarter of the pilots surveyed find themselves on the job in a fatigued state. After the February, 2009 Continental #3407 (Colgan Air) accident in Buffalo, where tired pilots in the cockpit played a major role, the FAA finally responded to the tired pilots syndrome, as a result of some prodding by Congress, and went to work on formulating some updated rules and regulations that would govern the flight time and duty time limitations for airline pilots working under the FAR 121 mandates. This was all-well-and-good with a couple of small caveats. The first is that the final compliance with these new rules will occur nearly 5 years after the initial discussions regarding the importance of the need to prevent lives being jeopardized by tired pilots in the cockpit. The second major shortcoming of the new rules relate to all-cargo airlines. They are exempt!
But now back to the bright side. The FAA, the DOT, the airline management folks and the unions, did an excellent job of evaluating all aspects of pilot fatigue and the revised rules deal with the many variables quite well. The new rules reduce the maximum time on duty from 16 to 13 hours. Research has revealed that after 13 hours, the diminished functionality of the pilot is equivalent to someone who had a .05 blood-alcohol level. As an ex-non-sked charter pilot who experienced too many 20 hour duty days, I will readily attest to being in the cockpit in this awful physiological condition. Research has also revealed that after 13 hours of duty, the rate of mistakes that result in accidents increase by 5 times over one who is well-rested. After 8 hours of duty the accident rate increases exponentially.
The new rules will very definitely save a lot of lives and crunched aluminum air machines. Amongst the very positive changes is consideration for the “circadian rhythm monster” which is as insidious as single-time-zone pilot fatigue. This is well addressed in the new changes along with a requirement for flight crew and management training regarding pilot fatigue—it addresses developing an awareness of fatigue in the cockpit and possible countermeasures. Most importantly, the new rules state that if a flight crew member informs the company that he/she is too tired to fly, there can be no action taken against that pilot. In certain realms of aviation the pilot that tells the boss he has to cancel a flight to get some rest, he would be fired.
And now comes the monster caveat: The revised rules do not apply to all-cargo operations! That is correct. The question is: Will that cargo-laden Boeing 747 (for instance) make less of an impact when it slams into the school or hospital than a passenger carrying 747? That is an easy one—emphatically no! Why did this anomaly arise? It has to do with the bottom line of the cargo carrier and the power of the lobbyists in Washington that influence our government. A quote from the rule-makers is as follows: “The final rule does not apply to all-cargo operations, although these carriers have the ability under the new rules if they so choose.” It should be noted that the instances of airplane crashes with tired pilots in the cockpits of cargo airplanes is off-the-scale higher than passenger-carrying airline crashes. The all-cargo loophole should be fought tooth-and-nail by all pilots. The passenger pilot can shortly fine himself in the “night-freight-dog” world. For more information about the professional pilot’s trials and tribulations of pilot fatigue I suggest that you read The Rogue Aviator; in the Back Alleys of Aviation.
This blog is prepared by Allen Morris/aka Ace Abbott, author of The Rogue Aviator (www.therogueaviator.com)