No more falling asleep on the job

Late last month the FAA gave pilots a truly needed-and long awaited-Christmas present. For the first time since the 1960s, the government instituted a major overhaul of pilot rest and duty rules, known as flight time/duty time (FTDT). While the impetus was the crash of Colgan 3407 in Buffalo in 2009, pilots, both individually and through the voices of their various unions, have been pushing for changes for decades. Specifically, they have been advocating for changes based on valid scientific research on the effects of changes in the circadian rhythms of the human body, and on pilots in particular. The major factors that needed to be studied were the changes in wake/sleep cycles, both in the home base and after crossing time zones, as well as the changes brought on by being in a different bed every night. Constant pressurization cycles also fatigue a pilot, as their bodies have to go from ambient pressure altitudes as low as sea level to a cabin altitude of several thousand feet, and do this several times a day.

The new rule, which runs more than 300 pages, also creates a new FAR section-Part 117.

Under the old rules, pilots could work a 16-hour duty day, defined as the point at which the pilot reported to work until he was released from duty by his company. The time of day was not taken into account, so it was possible to work 16 straight hours whether you started at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. This alone led to serious concerns and complaints. If a pilot was on a normal circadian cycle, woke up at 8 a.m., and did not need to report to work until 8 p.m., he might face a 16-hour day that would end with him being awake for nearly 30 hours before he set the brake.

Until about 10 years ago, this could actually be worse if a pilot was on reserve or on call. It was possible under an old interpretation for pilots to be awake and/or responsible to their company for nearly 40 hours without a rest period. Fortunately, in the early 2000s, the FAA issued what was called the “Whitlow letter.” That interpretation decreed that airlines could not put a pilot on call without considering that time to be duty time, even if the pilot was at home. Prior to Whitlow, if a pilot began a reserve period at home, he was not technically on duty until he reported to work.  In theory, he could be awake for a period of time, go into his window for 16 hours, and just prior to the window expiring, he could be called to work. It was an outrageous interpretation, and the Whitlow letter was the first real sign that the FAA was taking seriously the need to have a more realistic, scientifically based set of rules.

Enter the Colgan crash. In brief, the crew was found to more than likely be exhausted due to the rigors of commuting, and in the case of the first officer, also being under the weather. The investigation cast a harsh light on the quality of the current FTDT rules, especially at the regional airlines.

The old rules set limits on the number of hours a pilot could fly in seven- and 30-day periods, as well as annually. The new rules will now use a rolling hour count to track all duty time. This is significant, because the new rules take into account time spent dead-heading between flights (not to be confused with commuting to work), as well as time spent on reserve at the airport (ready reserve/hot standby/airport reserve). The new rules will limit pilots to 60 hours of duty during a 168 hour rolling look-back window. The actual flight hour limits will be controlled by the number of flight hours allowed within a given duty period. Further, the old rules had a limit of hours flown within a 30 day month. The new rules reduce that to hours flown in a rolling twenty-eight days. The limit of 1,000 hours of block in a calendar year has been modified so that the 12 months is no longer a calendar year, but a rolling 12 months.

What is described above is the first of two primary building blocks for the new rules. The second one takes into account the time at which a pilot reports for duty. The report time will dictate how long a pilot can remain on duty. That duty time may then be further adjusted based on how many legs the pilot is scheduled to fly. The new maximum duty day will be 14 hours, and that is a hard cap, and the company only gets that utility if the pilot reports between 0700-1159 “acclimated time,” which is defined as having been in that time zone for 72 hours. However, the science has shown that given adequate rest and a reasonable report time, a pilot can safely and efficiently increase the daily limit from eight to nine hours of flying under certain circumstances.

Within the new grid of flight times and duty times, a nine-hour block day will be rare, and can only be done with a max of two flights. For example, JFK to LAX, and then LAX to ORD will be allowed.

In order to account for unpredictable events, such as weather or a mechanical problem, the airline will be allowed to extend a duty period by up to two hours, and then only with the concurrence of the PIC. That is, if the PIC says no, then the work day is done. There is also a further limitation on the flight duty period extension: If the extension is more than thirty minutes, a second extension triggers a thirty hour rest period when the duty period is over. Further, the extension can not violate any of the look-back provisions. Obviously, this provision won’t get used much, unless it is the last day of a trip.

There are some secondary building blocks to the new rules that are just as critical. From a pilots’ perspective, the old rules did nothing to guarantee a good night of sleep. You were required to have eight hours of rest in a 24-hour period. However, time spent in transportation “local in nature” was not considered duty time; further, “local in nature” was not defined. That meant that a realistic night of sleep was between five and eight hours. Further, the airlines were able to schedule a reduced rest period of eight hours total time on the ground, and they did so routinely, with little regard to potential fatigue. The new rules not only totally eliminate the concept and scheduling of reduced rest, they guarantee that the pilot will get an eight hour uninterrupted sleep period.

A further enhancement to the rest requirements is that once every seven days/168 hours, a pilot will be given a rest period of no fewer than 30 hours free from duty. Currently, the rule is for 24 hours, although most airline contracts have modified that to a calendar day.

There are other changes as well. Pilots that commute will have to attest to being fit for duty. Reserve pilots, long treated as second-class citizenry, are specifically addressed with regard to their own duty limits. For international pilots, limitations are put on the company based on the quality of the rest facility available (there are three classes).

So, what does all of this mean? First of all, what I’ve discussed here applies only to unaugmented domestic operations. International operations, which already carry relief pilots, have some enhancements of their own that will require some flights to add another relief pilot. Second, the cargo sector was exempted, and as you may be aware, that has already triggered a number of lawsuits that may be years in resolving.

But for the traveling public or the aspiring pilot, these changes are long overdue. They will not go into effect for two full years, giving the airlines time to rewrite computer software and hire the necessary pilots. The FAA, in short, has brought the regional sector of the industry up to par with what already exists in many, but not all, major airline contracts. Further, the airlines will now be able to recognize that we all play by the same rules, which eliminates some cost variables.

As pilots, it is almost impossible to put into words what this means. I’ve worked under the old FARs, and I have been fortunate to work under one of the better sets of work rules in the industry, and the difference is beyond compare. These new rules will guarantee the opportunity to get eight hours of sleep each night, to include time for at least one full meal. They limit the amount of flying we will do if we start a day or a trip in the middle of the night. They give the PIC a much greater voice in safety.

Did the new rules go far enough? For cargo pilots, absolutely not. A pilot is a pilot, no matter what time he flies or what kind of payload he has. Also, the original proposal calculated rest as beginning when a crew reached their hotel (“behind the door”). This provision got removed, but the guarantee of an eight hour sleep period helps mitigate that. The full impact on reserves remains to be seen. The new limit on the number of landings is significant as well, but will have a huge impact on short-haul airlines, such as Cape Air and Great Lakes. Some will argue that more should have been done to provide more time off between trips, and while that would  have been nice, it is something that unions can address individually, and do so more appropriately based on the operation of a given carrier. Personally, I’d like to have seen the FAA require that foreign carriers operating to and from the United States also comply with these rules.

What else does it mean? Some major airlines fly the FARs, or close to them. Virgin America, jetBlue, and Continental (United) will all have to hire pilots. American claimed when the NPRM was first published that they would need more than 2,000 additional pilots. Regionals will need more. For the public, the cost of flying will go up, and in some cases, substantially. RJ’s may see their retirements accelerated, and a few cities may lose service altogether. In my eyes, it is a fair trade, as a human life has no price. I’ve seen tired pilots fall asleep while taxiing, while flying the last few hundred feet of an ILS, even during the takeoff roll, as well as when sitting down in the terminal. Unfortunately, humans often don’t recognize the extent of their own fatigue until is very advanced, and by then their judgment may be severely impaired.

These new rules are a long time coming. They are good. The airlines will cry poverty, but they won’t find many sympathizers, especially among their employees. Will new jobs be created? In some cases, yes. But more importantly, safer jobs will be created.

–Chip Wright

  • jmackay

    how many landings?

  • DCR

    No regulation addresses the requirement for the pilot to report ready and rested for duty. Too many airline pilots commute to work and do not provide for any rest before assigned duty. Until the regulations address the communting pilot’s responsibility, Colgan based crashes will continue to occur. Because this is an ALPA union issue, the FAA does not have the courage to do anything about the root cause of many fatigue accidents. These regulations are more hollywood than substance.

  • Chip Wright

    “No regulation addresses the requirement for the pilot to report ready and rested for duty. Too many airline pilots commute to work and do not provide for any rest before assigned duty. Until the regulations address the communting pilot’s responsibility, Colgan based crashes will continue to occur. Because this is an ALPA union issue, the FAA does not have the courage to do anything about the root cause of many fatigue accidents. These regulations are more hollywood than substance.”

    Nothing could be farther from the truth. The significance of these rule changes simply can not be overstated. As for reporting fit for duty, every pilot will be required to acknowledge that they are specifically reporting fit, and rested, under the new regs. Further, companies can institute their own rules and regs for commuters.

    There was talk about imposing a rule for commuters to be in base a certain amount of time prior to starting the trip. In the end, the issue of commuting is extremely complex, but most importantly, such a rule would be virtually unenforceable.

    As for pilots commuting and not being rested, this assertion is insulting to most pilots, as the overwhelming majority do indeed show up rested. One reason so many pilots commute is that their pay does not get adjusted for living in high cost-of-living cities, and they get no financial help with moving expenses, especially a first move. The airlines–and the flying public–aren’t about to pay for that, especially in this economy.

    Rest assurred, these new rules–especially for regional pilots–simply can not be understated.

    As for JMacakay’s question on the number of landings, it is spelled out in a grid that is a part of the rule. There is a Fact Sheet on the FAA website. Currently, the link is

    Hope that helps.