WASHINGTON – After a regional airliner crashed in western New York a year and a half ago, killing 50 people, the Obama administration promised swift action to prevent similar tragedies. High on the list: new rules governing the number of hours pilots may work, to prevent tired flight crews from making fatal errors.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote in June 2009 that the Federal Aviation Administration was in a hurry and wouldn't wait for Congress "to add mandatory layers to airline safety," nor even for crash investigators to complete their work, "because air passengers deserve action. And, they deserve it now."
It's taken 15 months and a half-dozen missed deadlines, but the FAA is finally about to propose new regulations on how many hours airlines can schedule pilots to be on duty or in the cockpit. A draft was submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review last week, and a proposed rule is likely to be published within days, industry officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to address the issue publicly. A House hearing on the proposal is scheduled for next week.
EDITOR'S NOTE — An occasional look at government promises and how well they are kept.
Even when the new rules are proposed, it will likely be months — possibly even a year or longer — before they take effect. Pilot unions and relatives of crash victims who have been campaigning for the new rules said they're troubled by the lengthy process when safety is at stake.
"You can't be anything but concerned about the delays. This is supposedly (Federal Aviation Administration chief) Randy Babbitt's No. 1 priority and something there has been a crying need for decades now," said Kevin Kuwik, a spokesman for relatives of the victims of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo in February 2009. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that both pilots on the flight were probably suffering from fatigue, although fatigue wasn't a direct cause of the accident.
At a private meeting with White House officials in June, relatives were assured the issue is a priority, he said.
Transportation and FAA officials declined to discuss the reason for the delays. Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said only, "We are working as quickly as possible to get the proposal out for comment."
Lawmakers, industry officials and union leaders familiar with the process say the difficulty is in demonstrating that the safety benefits of stricter rules on flight hours — lives saved and injuries avoided — would outweigh the cost of the rules to the struggling airline industry. Depending upon how they are written, new regulations could cost industry billions of dollars over the next decade.
The result, these insiders say, has been a monthslong back-and-forth between the government and industry.
Officials at airline trade associations say they haven't been lobbying to block or delay new regulations. But the cost estimates the airline industry has supplied the government amount to a kind of lobbying, said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"I know for sure they are using the rulemaking process to make their case," said Oberstar, who has talked privately with Babbitt about the situation. He said one reason for the delay is that the FAA has been trying to "bulletproof" the proposal against possible challenges.
"The companies don't want any change that will cost them 10 cents," Oberstar said. "That's what it all comes down to."
Tom Hendricks, vice president for the Air Transport Association, an organization of major air carriers, said he hasn't seen either a draft proposal or cost estimates from the FAA. But he said, "We're always very concerned about added costs without a demonstrable safety benefit."
Current rules say pilots can be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty — which means being at work, ready to fly — and up to eight hours of actual flight time in a 24-hour period, with a minimum of eight hours for rest in between. The rules don't take into account that it can be more tiring for regional airline pilots to fly five or six short legs in six hours than it is for a pilot with a major airline to fly eight hours across the Atlantic to Europe, say, with only one takeoff and landing. Takeoffs and landings are usually the most strenuous part of flying.
The rules also don't take into account pilots whose schedules put them in the cockpit during the period, typically 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., when people are more likely to become fatigued than if they were awake the same number of hours during the daytime. Cargo airlines — especially overnight package services — do much of their flying during those hours.
Major airlines have urged the FAA to balance a reduction in hours for pilots who fly more fatiguing schedules with an increase in hours for pilots who fly less taxing routes, which could offset much of the cost of new rules. Pilot unions oppose that approach.
Babbitt formed a committee of airline and labor officials last summer to make recommendations on new regulations. Instead of one set of recommendations, the committee produced separate proposals from cargo and charter airlines, commercial airlines and pilot unions.
Charter airlines — which fly 95 percent of U.S. troops and 40 percent of military cargo around the world — want to continue exceptions in current regulations that allow longer flight and duty hours for their pilots.
The military "is watching very closely what is going on with the flight and duty-time rulemaking because how that comes out that will affect their ability to move troops and their ability to move cargo," said Oakley Brooks, president of the National Air Carrier Association. "We're working closely with them."
Pilot unions oppose the exceptions, arguing that all airlines should be held to the same safety standards.
"Do we want pilots flying our troops around the world to be more tired than other pilots?" asked Lee Collins, secretary of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.
The effort to overhaul the rules is also a victim of the aviation industry's safety success over the past decade, thanks primarily to better warning systems that help prevent planes from flying into the ground or colliding in midair. In some years, there have been no fatal airline crashes in the U.S.
Finding ways to prevent pilot fatigue has stymied federal regulators and the airline industry for decades. The NTSB has been urging since 1990 that rules be updated to reflect fatigue research.
The FAA proposed new rules in the late 1990s. The proposal lingered for more than a decade without further action, and agency officials cited an impasse between pilots and industry. The proposal was withdrawn last year when the agency began working on the issue again.
"I don't think there's anything hard about looking at what the science tells us and coming up with commonsense rules," said Russ Leighton, head of safety for the Teamsters aviation division. "Getting people to wrap their minds around that change or to stop acting like that change is going to put every airline in the country out of business — that's the hard part."
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
(This version corrects the title of Russ Leighton to head of safety for the Teamsters aviation.)