Pilot fatigue rules to help prevent dangerous flying conditions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Rules aimed at preventing airline pilots from flying while dangerously fatigued were issued Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration, a move safety advocates have been urging for more than two decades.

The move comes several years after a plane, piloted by exhausted pilots, crashed near Buffalo. (Photo: Associated Press)

The rules update current pilot work schedule regulations, which largely date back to the 1960s, to reflect studies on how much time pilots need for rest and an understanding of how travel through time zones and the human body clock's response to light and darkness can affect performance.

Carriers have two years to adapt to the new rules. The FAA estimated the cost to industry at $297 million over 10 years, a fraction of the $2 billion a year that an airline trade association had estimated a draft proposal released by FAA over a year ago would cost.

The new rules come nearly three years after the deadly crash of a regional airliner flown by two exhausted pilots. Family members of the 50 people killed in the accident near Buffalo, N.Y., have lobbied relentlessly for more stringent regulations.

The rules would limit the maximum number of hours a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty — including wait time before flights and administrative duties — to between nine and 14 hours. The total depends upon the time of day pilots begin their first flight and the number of time zones crossed.

The maximum amount of time pilots can be scheduled to fly is limited to eight or nine hours, and pilots would get a minimum of 10 hours to rest between duty periods, a two-hour increase over the old rules. Pilots flying overnight would be allowed fewer hours than pilots flying during the day.

But cargo carriers — who do much of their flying overnight when people naturally crave sleep — are exempted from the new rules. The FAA said forcing cargo carriers to reduce the number of hours their pilots can fly would be too costly compared to the safety benefits.

Imposing the rules on cargo airlines like Federal Express or United Parcel Service would have added another $214 million to the cost, FAA officials said.

The exemption for cargo carriers runs counter to the FAA's goal of "one level of safety" across the aviation industry. It's also certain to provoke complaints from pilot unions, who point out that cargo pilots suffer from fatigue the same as pilots for passenger-carrying airlines. And, while cargo planes aren't carrying passengers, the risk to the public on the ground from an air crash is just as great.

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