Pilot Fatigue and the Duty Time Rule

When the National Transportation Safety Board releases its annual Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements, it almost always contains a goal regarding operator fatigue. As part of the NTSB drive to reduce deadly aviation accidents, it has led efforts to combat pilot fatigue. That is why the NTSB is celebrating a new rule released by the Federal Aviation Administration last week. The new rule offers a science-based approach to gauging pilot fatigue and reducing the incidents of tired pilots in the cockpit.

The Department of Transportation and the FAA have long sought new rules to govern duty time among pilots. Airlines have resisted any restrictions that would require them to hire more pilots to meet their current demands. While the new rule was lauded as a step in the right direction, an NTSB spokesperson did worry that it only applies to large passenger-carrying operations. Smaller carriers are not required to abide by the rule, and so may continue to allow practices that lead to pilot fatigue and pilot error. The NTSB believes the rule should be expanded to include all pilots, including those carrying cargo as opposed to passengers.

Flight and duty time restrictions have failed in the past, partly because they were poorly worded. Under the old rules, an airline could consider the time a flight crew took to get to and from the airport as rest time. The new rule increases the total amount of rest time that must be made available to pilots before they report for flight duty. It also eliminates the practice of including commute time as a resting period.

Carriers and flight crews are equally responsible for ensuring that pilot fatigue does not cause an accident. This rule will make it easier for pilots to get enough rest before flying, but the onus is still on the individuals and their employers to see that every precaution is taken to promote aviation safety.

Source: National Transportation Safety Board, “Statement from NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman on new FAA flight and duty time rule,” Kelly Nantel, 21 December 2011

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