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New Rules Regarding Fatigue

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Michael Pearson
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More and more stories are surfacing about pilot error being made due to fatigue. Perhaps the most commonly heard story was the Colgan Air flight 3407 which was later attributed to pilot error and further speculated that the pilots had not had adequate rest. Flight 3407 crashed on February 12th 2009 killing all 49 passengers onboard and one on the ground in Buffalo, New York. The accident drew significant attention to the current rules the Federal Aviation Administration has in place to ensure that pilots have enough sleep and stay focused and alert in the cockpit. In some situations, flying while fatigued can be compared to having to same effects on the body as the equivalent of flying while impaired. While Colgan Air may be the most recent flight to draw attention, fatigue is to blame in many more incidents and accidents occurring over the years. Less than a month ago the FAA finished polishing up the restructured rules that are scheduled to go into effect in two years.

The new changes are as follows.

  1. The new rule changes the definition of flight duty. The flight duty period is now the time of day the pilots begins their first flight, the number of scheduled flight segments and the number of time zones they cross. Previously, rules included different rest requirements for domestic, international and unscheduled flights which did not account for start time and time zone crossings. Flight duty periods range from 9-14 hours for single crew operations.
  2. Flight time limits are now 8 or 9 hours. Flight time is defined as when the plane is moving under its own power before, during or after flight.
  3. There is now a ten hour minimum rest period. Previously it was an eight hour minimum rest period. However, the regulations now mandate that a pilot have an opportunity for at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep during that 10 hour period.
  4. There are now new cumulative flight duty and flight time limits to reduce potential cumulative fatigue. The rule puts weekly and 28-day limits on the amount of time a pilot may be assigned any type of flight duty. The rule also places 28-day and annual limits on actual flight time. It also requires that pilots have at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis. This is a 25 percent increase from the previous rules.
  5. The pilot must now affirmatively state his or her fitness for duty at the beginning of each flight segment. If the pilot reports to be fatigued then the airline is must reprieve the pilot from duty.
  6. Each airline must adhere to the Fatigue Risk Management Plan mandated by Congress. An FRMP provides education for pilots and airlines to help address the effects of fatigue which can be caused by overwork, commuting, or other activities. Required training updates every two years will include fatigue mitigation measures, sleep fundamentals and the impact to a pilot’s performance, as well as the potential effects of commuting. The training will also address how fatigue is influenced by things such lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, family life, and sleep disorders.


As with all regulation- these new rules do not come without a price tag. It is expected to cost the airlines and aviation industry an estimated $297 million dollars. The Federal Aviation Administration claims the expected benefits are predicted to outweigh that cost.

Will the new rules actually prevent accidents from occurring? Only time will tell if the rules will be a hinder or help to the airline industry and keeping skies safer. Ultimately, the rule will only help with fatigue caused by loss of sleep, which only accounts for a portion of what fatigue is caused by. Other causes of fatigue can come from illness, hypoglycemia, dehydration, and stress, among many others. In the end, the FAA can regulate things to the extreme but ultimately it will all depend on the pilot. Even while giving the crew more time to sleep, it cannot be guaranteed that they will actually get that rest. The hope is that the new rules may just make it a little bit easier for the pilot to get the rest by giving them more time of leisure, which may be true to a degree. This is an optimistic outlook to solving the problem as there is nothing that can guarantee the pilot will not be interrupted by outside factors such as family concerns etc. Many pilots criticize the new rule saying they get adequate rest now and there will always be a weaker link that will be fatigued no matter how many hours of time off they receive. Additionally, critics of the new rules claim that it does not address the aspects of the problem that are the most important; such as protection for pilots who admit they are fatigued and fear they may be penalized, pilots who spend large amounts of time commuting prior to their check in, and the controversial fact that these rules do not apply to air cargo pilots. The FAAs explanation for not extending the rules to air cargo pilots is that it would be too costly compared to the benefits that would be generated from that portion of the aviation industry. That statement seems somewhat contradictory considering the main goal of the new rule is to bring more safety to the skies and people on the ground. However, the new rules seem to be just a new financial burden commercial aviation will have to keep up with. In the end, no amount of regulation can make the determination of a pilot being fit to fly, as no one but the pilot can tell if they are feeling safe to fly. It will be the responsibility of the pilot and the crew to report a pilot flying fatigued and unfit just the same as they would be expected to report a impaired pilot. Regardless of the hopes that these new rules may make some sort of positive impact, these past accidents should serve as a reminder to the crew of what can happen when they fly tired and hopefully help make them make a responsible decision for their flight and passengers.


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