It is common practice to want to pick on the FAA, and often with good reason. However, there are times when the feds do something that is most definitely for the greater good. Most pilots, for example, are aware that in the wake of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA has created new rest rules designed to make it easier for pilots to be adequately rested during their trips. This is a win-win for the companies (though, to hear them tell it, they will all go bankrupt), the pilots, and the traveling public.
But the real breakthrough for this came around 2000, when the FAA issued what is commonly called the “Whitlow Letter.” At that time, the standard practice at the airlines with regard to reserve pilots was to work under the assumption that if a pilot was on reserve, he was not technically on duty until he actually reported for an assignment. This meant that if a pilot woke up at 7 a.m. and went on reserve at noon for a reserve window of availability of 14 hours (which was, and still is, common practice), the company could call him up at the tail end of his window—2 a.m. in this case—and keep him on duty and flying until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. This pilot faced the possibility of being awake for 32 consecutive hours. No rational person would consider this to be safe.
Fortunately, one of those rational people was James Whitlow, then-chief counsel at the FAA. He was responding to a letter of inquiry from Rich Rubin, a captain at American Airlines who was requesting specific guidance on FAR duty and rest rules when he turned the industry on its ear.
Whitlow’s response was a body blow to the old practice, and it was met with fierce resistance by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group. The ATA immediately went to court to try to get the interpretation thrown out; they lost. The new interpretation forced the airlines to consider the start of a reserve period to be the start of duty. In the example above, the pilot would start his reserve at noon and would be released from all duty at 2 a.m., even if he did not report to work until 6 in the evening. In practical terms, in many the duty day was also shortened by virtue of the fact that a pilot who is at home and gets called needs to have time to get to the airport, park, get through security, and check in. Common policy is a 90-minute report time window.
Further, Whitlow also said that in any given 24-hour period, a pilot needs to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest.
The airlines realized right away that the Whitlow letter would force them to hire more pilots, and schedulers and pilots both became adept at doing 24 look-backs calculated down to the minute.
While the Colgan crash was the event that forced the FAA to develop a more scientifically based rest rule that takes into account circadian rhythms and the effect of crossing time zones, it was the Whitlow letter that gave the pilot bloc the momentum to start pushing for serious change. Unfortunately, as is so often true in aviation, the rules are often written in blood–in this case Colgan Flight 3407.—Chip Wright