In recent years, the Federal Aviation Administration has addressed the problem of fatigue among on-duty airline pilots. Studies have shown that operator fatigue can result in impairment similar to the effects of alcohol, and federal restrictions are currently in place to help ensure that pilots get enough sleep.
However, when the FAA presented its new regulations two years ago, one group of airlines -- cargo carriers -- was exempted. The cargo industry opposed the new rules, claiming they would cost too much to implement.
The possible repercussions of the exemption have come into focus as the National Transportation Safety Board looks into a plane crash that took the lives of two UPS pilots. An investigation has revealed that, prior to the pre-dawn accident, both pilots complained about their exhausting work schedules.
At about 9 p.m. the night before they died, the pilots flew out of Rockford, Illinois. They completed scheduled stops in Peoria, Illinois, and Louisville, Kentucky, but on the final leg of the trip the plane crashed in Birmingham, Alabama, at about 5 a.m.
As one might expect, UPS has been reticent to say that pilot fatigue was a factor in the accident even though numerous statements from the deceased pilots clearly point to concerns over lack of rest. Additionally, union officials noted that if the pilots' employer had been a passenger airline and not UPS, the pilots' upcoming work schedules would have violated federal restrictions.
The ongoing investigation is a reminder of the need for safety advocacy not only for airplane passengers, but also for crew members, ground personnel and airline workers in the cargo industry. The stakes are simply too high to let exhausting work schedules compromise aviation safety.
Source: U.S. News & World Report, "Pilots complained of tiring schedules, made errors before UPS plane crash," Joan Lowy, Feb. 20, 2014