How the New Pilot Rules Will Affect Travel

2012 has brought with it some of the most sweeping pilot regulations in 50 years. These changes will help make the air safer (which we’re all in favor of). But could they also affect your ability to find cheap tickets?

Last month, the FAA released the new list of rules, which primarily aim to combat pilot fatigue. More than two dozen accidents and 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue over the past two decades, according to ABCNews.com.

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One of the most recent cases was the 2009 crash of Continental flight 3407 operated by Colgan Air in Buffalo, N.Y., which killed 50 people. Pilots for that flight had commuted to Newark from Seattle and Florida, attempting to sleep in an airport lounge before reporting for duty. They can be heard yawning on the flight recorder prior to the crash.

“This is a major safety achievement,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a press release. “We made a promise to the traveling public that we would do everything possible to make sure pilots are rested when they get in the cockpit. This new rule raises the safety bar to prevent fatigue.”

What Are The New Rules for Pilots?

  • Reducing the maximum time pilots can be on duty from 16 hours to between 9 and 14 hours. Pilots’ flight time is now limited to 8-9 hours.
  • Increasing the minimum amount of required rest on duty days from 8 hours to 10 hours. In addition, the pilot must have the opportunity to get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep during this period.
  • Factoring in the number of time zones a pilot has gone through when scheduling.
  • Limiting the amount of cumulative time for flight duty and flight time – both on a weekly basis and in a 28-day period. There are also 28-day and annual limits on actual flight time. Pilots should also have 30 consecutive free hours from duty on a weekly basis.
  • Requiring pilots to state their “fitness for duty” at the start of each flight segment. If the pilot reports he or she is fatigued or unfit for duty, the airline must remove the pilot from the flight.

The estimated cost of this rule for the aviation industry is $297 million over 10 years, but the FAA estimates the benefits are worth between $247 million and $470 million.

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Reaction to Rules Mixed

While industry insiders are pleased that the FAA took steps to mitigate the issue of pilot fatigue, many think the rules don’t go far enough.

In an interview with Scott Pelley of CBS Evening News, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger said that the problem of pilot fatigue is endemic and that while the new rules are good, there is still more that could be done.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he told Pelley. “While this is much better than the status quo, it doesn’t go the full distance.”

One of the major concerns of pilots and passengers is commuting pilots who fly long distances to work before getting into the cockpit. ABCNews.com reported many of these pilots can’t afford hotel rooms and end up bunking in crowded crash pads or sleeping on chairs and couches in crew lounges at the airport – not the best recipe for a good night’s sleep.

And while pilots can report being too fatigued to fly, many fear reprisal from airlines – which could have a cooling effect.

“I’m very distressed over these rules,” John Nance, a former Air Force and airline pilot, told ABCNews.com, “because they don’t go anywhere near far enough and they bear the earmarks of having listened to the whining of the airline industry. We have needed comprehensive change in our duty time controls for fatigue for a long time and this just ignores about 25 years of research.”

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How the Rules Might Affect You

Regardless of whether or not they go far enough, the new rules should make flying safer for all travelers. Well-rested pilots are less likely to make mistakes in the air, which should make everyone feel a little bit safer.

Beyond that, there’s the estimated $297 million price tag, which airlines might find a way to pass on to passengers in the form of higher ticket prices or added fees.

In addition, airlines will have a bigger challenge with scheduling taking into account maximum flying times for pilots, which could result in delays or reduced flight availability. If the pilot for your flight says he or she’s too tired to fly, you might be left waiting as the airline attempts to find a replacement. Still, that’s a small price to pay.

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Published: March 7, 2012