Claremore Daily Progress

August 4, 2011

Duty and rest rules for commercial pilots delayed

Letter to the editor
Claremore Progress

CLAREMORE — Dear Editor,

I’ve read, with interest, Andy Pasztor’s r article in the 02 August edition of the WSJ on the latest delay in the publication of a final rule to update the decades-old duty and rest rules for most commercial flight operations. It has to be a great challenge to take a complex technical issue and reduce it to understandable terms for a general readership. Very much like the sound bite length coverage of the recent limited shut down of the Federal Aviation Administration, duty and rest can be made to seem very simple: change equals good and shorter duty periods have to be better than what we have today. It is easy to understand how the focus of that report could be read to imply that ‘charter and cargo operators” oppose the proposed rules solely on the basis of economics when coupled with the long standing public perception that all airlines are by their very nature evil.

Unfortunately, the simplest description might not be entirely accurate and the core safety concerns are likely of little to no interest to the general readership of any mass media publication.

The industry’s objections to the last available version of the proposed rule are published in the public docket for those that care to dig into the topic further. The real safety and procedural concerns with the Federal Aviation Administration’s on size all rule include:

•The Aviation Rule Making Committee did not meet the mandate of its charter in failing to consider opposing opinions and failing to address all sectors of commercial air transport. The Committee’s recommendations appear to have been largely agreed between Administrator Babbitt, the “largest North American pilot union” and other trades unions in advance of the first meeting of the ARC. What could not be attained at the bargaining table was to be attained through regulation.

•The FAA’s proposed rule is not science based and, in some cases, contravenes the best available fatigue-related science. The duty and rest rules more closely resemble a collective bargaining agreement than a science-based mitigation of a level of risk associated to fatigue in human performance.

•The one size all approach may require many of the” charter and cargo operators” to reduce the level safety and  of protection against fatigue in the flight compartment to the same level as that of the often cited Colgan Air on the day of their fatal accident. Many of the operators who “often fly long routes overnight” allow their pilots to live at any location they choose and transport those crew members at the operator’s expense into the location from which they are to operate an aircraft. That travel is part of the crew member’s schedule and accomplished well in advance of their planned departure time to ensure an appropriate rest period immediately precedes their duty period. The proposed rule does nothing to prohibit an aircraft operator or a commercial pilot from continuing to do business as usual for what Mr. Pasztor called “passenger carriers” and pilots can continue to commute directly into their duty period – no rest required.

•Proven science-based fatigue reduction techniques, such as strategic napping, continue to be prohibited by the FAA.

It appears, to my reading, that the “charter and cargo” airlines are not opposed to a change of rules as much as they oppose a change to a set of rules that appear to have little basis in science, nor have any demonstrable safety benefit. Fatigue is a limiting factor in human performance, but a one size all rule that arbitrarily sets duty period based on what  trades unions want may do very little to mitigate  the risks associated to fatigue.

The Office of Management and Budget is exercising due diligence in carefully assessing the cost and the estimated benefits of the FAA’s proposed rule. In order to demonstrate any benefit to its proposed rule, the FAA had to greatly inflate the value of one life over any value used in any previous rule making. The “charter and cargo operators” have argued that the FAA has failed to comply with the public law during its regulatory cost analysis when it failed to consider the full economic impact of its rule on small business entities and across several industry sectors - including those transporting the service members of the United States Armed Forces and the goods necessary to support their global mission. Until OMB completes its analysis and either validates or repudiates the FAA’s cost benefit analysis, it would be irresponsible to move forward with the publication of a Final Rule.

I appreciate the challenges journalists face in trying to form a balanced presentation of this highly emotional and politically sensitive issue. The problem is that this is a complex safety-related issue that should be examined on the basis of sound safety management practices. It is, however, being addressed by a politician who was formerly the leader of the “largest North American pilot union” employing the very emotional impact of the losses suffered by the Colgan families during a Presidential administration that has been extremely hostile to almost all businesses. The FAA appears to have chosen to discount science-based rulemaking and pushed forward its political agenda by branding those that question its tactics and techniques as being opposed to necessary safety enhancements.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The “charter and cargo carriers” with which I am familiar have long recognized that there are opportunities to improve upon the existing rules by employing the best science available to ensure flight operations are conducted with regard to the highest level of safety in the public interest.

Charles T. Ferling