Passengers are not the only ones losing sleep because of delayed flights: Airline pilots have had to work extra-long shifts, sometimes getting only a few hours of sleep a night.
Federal rules allow pilots to work 16 hours a day, eight of them actually flying a plane. Congestion and weather delays can extend their workday beyond the maximum, though, just so they can complete their last flight. That has the Federal Aviation Administration worried.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve walked by a gate podium when a passenger says, ‘Are you guys well rested? Did you get lots of sleep last night?”‘ said Capt. Rand Harrell, a 21-year veteran and an official of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents the pilots of most major airlines.”There’s a real possibility they did not.”
The FAA recently reminded the airlines that rules limit pilots to 16 hours a day, delays included. The FAA gave the industry until mid-November to adjust its schedules.
Although the pilots and the industry have different views about what the rule should be, neither is happy with the FAA’s guidance.
The agency, as early as 1995, sought to rewrite the federal regulation, but never issued new rules. FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said new rules may be proposed by the end of the year.
Since 1996, the National Transportation Safety Board has blamed 15 plane crashes, in part, on pilot fatigue. All involved small planes.
Pilots warn that a tired captain in the cockpit could make a catastrophic error. The airlines cite FAA rules requiring that pilots not fly if they may endanger life or property.
“If a pilot becomes fatigued, he or she is obligated by law in the interest of public safety to notify that airline and remove himself or herself from duty,” said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major airlines.
“Certainly, all of our member airlines support their pilots on those decisions. We want rested pilots who are safely capable of performing their duties.”
The pilots are trying to persuade the FAA to limit pilots to 12 hours on duty, with an additional two hours in case of delays. They are writing letters and calling lawmakers, asking them to join the effort.
The airline industry has endorsed a 14-hour work day, with two additional hours added if needed because of delays, said Al Prest, vice president of operations for the Air Transport Association.
Nevertheless, the group has gone to federal court to challenge the FAA’s interpretation about the 16-hour day, arguing it is a new regulation imposed without public input, Prest said. In addition, the ATA last week asked the agency to delay enforcing the 16-hour day until the court makes a decision.
Airline officials argue that the FAA’s action could force flights to be delayed even further or canceled altogether.