By Andy Pasztor
February 2, 2011
A bid to exempt some flights from proposed pilot-fatigue regulations threatens to complicate long-delayed congressional action on tougher Federal Aviation Administration rules.
With the FAA poised to impose more-stringent rules later this year limiting flight time and workday lengths for all airline pilots, the Senate is about to consider an amendment exempting certain cargo and passenger operations from those tougher limits. It is one of the most contentious issues roiling the aviation industry, pitting different airlines and pilot groups against each other.
Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe is expected to introduce an amendment Wednesday barring the FAA, as part of its current comprehensive rule-making effort, from imposing new restrictions on pilots flying for nonscheduled carriers. The exemption would cover charter flights carrying commercial cargo, as well as flights contracted by the Pentagon to transport troops or materials.
By retaining the current regulatory treatment of such flights, the amendment would allow some pilots flying cargo and passengers on charter trips to remain on duty for several hours longer than other airline crews. Pilots for nonscheduled carriers also could be required to stay behind the controls for longer stretches and report to work after shorter rest periods than those employed by the rest of the industry.
Under Sen. Inhofe’s amendment, however, the FAA would have to initiate a separate, lengthy rule-making process to mandate any changes to the pilot-fatigue rules.
The amendment is intended to benefit carriers such as Evergreen International Airlines Inc., the World Airways Inc. unit of Global Aviation Holdings Inc. andAtlas Air Worldwide HoldingsInc.
The National Air Carriers Association, which represents nonscheduled airlines, previously submitted comments to the FAA arguing that such carriers have “distinctly different operations” than scheduled airlines and a “one size fits all” regulatory approach isn’t appropriate. The association told the FAA that complying with the proposed rule would require a roughly 40% increase in the number of pilots working for nonscheduled carriers.
Nonscheduled carriers carry nearly 95% of U.S. military passengers around the world.
In remarks prepared for delivery on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Inhofe said his amendment “would ensure that a segment of our economy” heavily relied on by the Pentagon “is treated fairly” by the FAA. According to Sen. Inhofe, the FAA should “recognize the peculiar operating environment” in which non-scheduled carriers operate and provide them additional flexibility in scheduling crews.
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilots union, delivered a letter to all Senators Tuesday strongly opposing Sen. Inhofe’s amendment. The union has maintained that the proposed comprehensive rules, covering the entire industry, are based on the latest scientific evidence about the dangers of fatigue in the cockpit.
“Pilot fatigue is universal and the factors that lead to fatigue in most individuals are common,” Lee Moak, ALPA’s president, said in the letter. “There is no rational or scientific basis to support different ‘fatigue rules’ depending on the type of operation,” according to the letter, which added: “ALPA is adamantly opposed to any ‘carve out’ ” for nonscheduled carriers.
The National Air Carriers Association also has said that the proposed rules, if they become final, would have a “disastrous” economic impact on its members. Oakley Brooks, the president of the association, on Wednesday said consideration of the issue “is in its early days” and it is premature to predict how much support it will generate on Capitol Hill.
Senate Democratic leaders have indicated they hope to get bipartisan support for a “clean” FAA bill, free of controversial amendments. The legislation authorizes about $8 billion for airport construction and also includes money to continue funding the government’s share of modernizing the nation’s air-traffic-control system. The House is expected to take up its version of the FAA reauthorization bill later this month.
The FAA’s anticipated new fatigue rules, which Congress ordered to be finalized by the beginning of August, seek to replace a decades-old system with new, flexible rules spelling out daily and weekly pilot-scheduling limits based on various operational and physiological factors. The limits vary depending on the time of day, length of flights and number of takeoffs performed by crews between rest periods. The proposal also covers commuter and ultra-long-haul operations.
While the rest of the industry also has criticized the FAA’s proposal as overly restrictive and expensive, those airlines and associations generally haven’t asked for an explicit exemption. Rather, they have urged the agency to amend its proposal to resolve their concerns.