Get some sleep

The FAA recently issued its long-awaited proposal for modifying pilot working hours. While it is understood that the details in the proposal are likely to change a bit, it’s worth taking a look at the details now. While the proposal was spurred on by the crash of Colgan 3407 in Buffalo, it is one that has been pushed for by the major pilot unions for more than a decade. The airlines have largely resisted because of the possible need to increase staffing.

The proposed rule runs 145 pages, much of which is government legalese that doesn’t apply to us. But at the heart of it is this: At long last, the FAA has put a proposal on the table that takes quantifiable science into account. The 16-hour day currently in use would go away in favor of a 13-hour day, and that only if your duty day starts between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. At any other time, your day would be shorter, which takes into account circadian rhythms in a way the current rules do not.

The new rule also stipulates the rest period will not start until the pilot has arrived at the hotel. This is huge, because the old rules did not consider transportation “local in nature” as duty time, even if you were on the way to or from the airport. The issue of rest “behind the door” in the hotel has been a hotly contested issue for as long as I’ve been an airline pilot, and probably longer. Ideally—and most pilots on the line would agree with this—the requirement should be for 10 hours in your hotel room. That 10 hours would mean an eight hour sleep period can be achieved and still allow for time to travel to the hotel, time to eat at least one meal while getting ready for bed, and waking, showering, and dressing the next morning. While nine hours is not ideal (or in my mind enough), it’s a huge improvement and was most likely a compromise decision to get the airlines to accept the rule. Since the rule does not allow for the scheduling of reduced rest, a practice that regional airlines have abused in the past it will have an affect on the carriers.

If there is a big downside from the pilot’s perspective, it is the proposed ability to schedule 10 hours of flight time. Realistically, this is only going to work on 12- and 13-hour duty days, and only if there are a lot of very short legs or one or two long ones. For several years, jetBlue has been petitioning for a 10-hour flight rule so they can schedule crews for transcon out-and-backs. In other words, schedule them to fly from JFK to (insert your west coast city of choice here) and back. Since most crews are required to report for work an hour before the first flight, and given that the ground time is probably in the range of forty-five minutes, it’s going take that whole 13 hours to fly those 10. In fact, some transcon out-and-backs simply won’t work in the winter due to the winds, but a few will, which means the airlines won’t have to stage crews in hotels, thus reducing costs. For pilots, being able to fly more hours in a day could theoretically mean more off days in the bid period.

The new rule also puts more authority in the hands of the pilots themselves, especially with regard to irregular operations and in evaluating each other for fatigue. This is an issue to watch, and it is one that will affect almost every regional airline pilot in some way or another. As for the majors, much of what is proposed is already addressed in their contracts—but not everything. Chances are that staffing needs will increase, but the playing field will be level, so competitive disadvantages should be minimized.

-Chip Wright