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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

FAA Boss Promises Action on Pilot Fatigue; More News

Ramon Lopez

Federal Aviation Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt has vowed to develop regulations aimed at reducing the threat of fatigue in the flight deck.

"We know too much," Babbitt said in an address to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Air Safety Forum. "We have too much science in hand. We know too much about fatigue."

Babbitt announced the creation of pilot fatigue rulemaking committee in June after congressional hearings into the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12, 209 near Buffalo, NY All 49 people aboard and one person on the ground were killed. Federal investigators believe fatigue may have contributed the fatal accident.

The co-pilot in that fatal accident complained to the captain that she felt ill and would have skipped the flight but didn't want to pay for a hotel room, according to an extended cockpit voice recorder transcript released by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"I mean if I call in sick now, I've got to put myself in a hotel room until I feel better," said the co-pilot. "We'll see how ... it feels flying. If the pressure's just too much. I could always call in (sick) tomorrow. At least I'm in a hotel on the company's buck, but we'll see. I'm pretty tough." The captain suggested that she "kill it with a bunch of OJ or a bunch of vitamin C."

Babbitt, a former ALPA president and airline pilot, said the FAA will seek to limit how many hours regional airline pilots can fly in an effort to curb pilot fatigue. Babbitt said the new pilot flight and duty time rulemaking would incorporate recent scientific research about the factors that lead to fatigue.

In his most detailed comments yet about combating pilot fatigue, Babbitt told the Air Safety Forum participants: “If you haven’t read the transcript of the CVR for the Colgan accident, I’d encourage you to do so. The professionalism of the flight crew has been raised as an issue — and this isn’t the first time. We’ve got to put a stop to that. The accidents we’ve seen, and the call to action I’ve made all have the crying need for refocus on professionalism running through them.”

Added Babbitt: “This is a time for veterans to take the extra effort to mentor the pilots coming up through the ranks to ensure we maintain the highest levels of professionalism. This not only deals with safety, but with the need for you to help the new pilots learn how to react and adapt to change.

“Let’s face it, for a number of us who came up back in the day, you couldn’t find an airplane with someone in the left seat with less than 10 years experience. And those captains may as well have been carrying stone tablets down from the mountain. If they said it, you did it, and that was all there was to it. In fact, most of us apprenticed as flight engineers and spent a few years watching both flying pilots — valuable experience for sure.

“Not today. There are some airlines out there with senior pilots who have three years under their belt, and, unlike back then — they are going right into jets, flying long days in some of the busiest airspace in the world. I’m not saying that you’ve got to have 10 or 15 thousand hours before you’re worth your salt, but there is something to be said for having been flying around the system a few seasons.

“And just having that experience isn’t enough. The people with the experience need to make sure they’re mentoring the ones who don’t have it. This needs to become part of our professional DNA. If you’ve got experience and you’re not sharing it, you’re doing a disservice to our profession. This is not the time to be a man or woman of few words. The new ones need to hear from you. This is about safety, and safety is about saving lives,” the FAA boss stated.

Babbitt said the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on pilot fatigue is charged with drafting a notice of proposed rulemaking by Sept. 1. After FAA, DOT and OMB review, it goes out for public comment.

He said the ARC will “make sure that we get the answers we need as working men and women aviators. In rulemaking, not only does one size not fit all, but it’s unsafe to think that it can.”

Babbit said the 18 ARC members, including representatives from unions, airline industry groups and the FAA, are hard at work. “The early look at flight and duty time so far is progressing well. They are also looking at the subject of fatigue science to determine some different hourly limitations based upon scientific data. They have presented philosophical concepts of flight time, duty and rest limitations; including definitions of rest, duty, fatigue, captain’s authority and reserve. Scientists who specialize in fatigue have made presentations about sleep opportunities, circadian rhythms and potential scheduling.”

In wrapping up his speech, Babbitt said: “I can’t say this any more directly than I am right now: We all have to take on additional responsibilities whether we’re legally required to or not. This is about safety, and safety is about saving lives.

“I might not be in the cockpit every day, but that’s still my perspective. Safety is what got me there, and my goal as FAA administrator is to make sure that safety is paramount in every thing we say and every thing we do. I will leave you with this: If you think the safety bar is set too high, your sights are set way too low. It’s time for you to step up. That’s the only way we will reach the next level of safety.”

Elsewhere, a European pilots association criticized the European Union, saying the EU is endangering air safety by failing to act on the recommendations of experts who say cuts in flying hours are needed to curb pilot fatigue.

The European Cockpit Association, a group of pilots unions with 38,000 members, praised the action taken by the FAA in the wake of the Colgan crash. “This is in stark contrast to the European Union. EU Institutions have so far shied away from acting upon the conclusions from its own scientific study that shows that current EU pilot fatigue rules are insufficient and should be improved,” ECA said.

"Does Europe need a fatal accident too, before actions are taken over here?" asks Philip von Schöppenthau, secretary general of ECA. "Here in the EU, pilot fatigue is the single biggest 'hot potato' safety issue where neither the European Commission nor the European Aviation Safety Agency has shown any leadership to move decisively towards science-based EU rules.”

In Washington, Congress is taking steps to toughen regulations on pilot training and qualifications in response to accidents involving regional airlines. Already riled about questions raised in the Colgan accident, Congress is also attacking FAA's failure in acting on NTSB recommendations, a situation which worsened over the weekend with the New York helicopter/fixed wing crash and the revelations of more ignored recommendations.

Lawmakers want to raise the minimum number of flight hours required to become an airline pilot from the current 250 to 1,500 and give air carriers greater access to training records of pilots they're considering hiring.

The bipartisan proposals are contained in a House bill introduced by key members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

In brief, the bill:

• Requires the FAA to ensure that pilots are trained on stall recovery, upset recovery, and that airlines provide remedial training.

• Requires airline pilots to hold an FAA Airline Transport Pilot license (1,500 minimum flight hours required).

• Establishes comprehensive pre-employment screening of prospective pilots including an assessment of a pilot’s skills, aptitudes, airmanship and suitability for functioning in the airline’s operational environment.

• Requires airlines to establish pilot mentoring program, create Pilot Professional Development Committees, modify training to accommodate new-hire pilots with different levels and types of flight experience, and provide leadership and command training to pilots in command.

• Creates a Pilot Records Database to provide airlines with fast, electronic, secure access to a pilot’s comprehensive record. Information will include pilot’s licenses, aircraft ratings, check rides, Notices of Disapproval and other flight proficiency tests.

• Directs the FAA to update and implement a new pilot flight and duty time rule and fatigue risk management plans to more adequately track scientific research in the field of fatigue.

• It also requires air carriers to create fatigue risk management systems approved by FAA.

The bill also requires the Department of Transportation Inspector General to study and report to Congress on whether the number and experience level of safety inspectors assigned to regional airlines is commensurate with that of mainline airlines.

It mandates that the first page of an Internet website that sells airline tickets disclose the air carrier that operates each segment of the flight. The measure also calls for a National Academy of Sciences study on pilot commuting and fatigue.

The Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union for the 11,500 pilots of American Airlines, voiced initial support for the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009. APA said “this legislation represents a significant step in the right direction for an industry that has taken some wrong turns.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Airline Division says “the legislation is a move in the right direction for industry safety."

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