New Rules to Reduce Pilot Fatigue
New FAA rest rules designed to prevent pilot fatigue will change the way airlines schedule cockpit crews.
Having a flying job where I get paid to travel and stay in fancy hotels sounds like a dream, and most of the time it is—when everything goes according to schedule. When the plan doesn’t work out so well, the job can quickly turn into a nightmare: Delays, challenging sleeping situations and jet lag can quickly add up to fatigue. In my job, fatigue is a perilous working condition. Statistics show that tired pilots are much more likely to make mistakes than rested ones.
Last December the FAA announced a sweeping set of new rest rules that will overhaul the way airlines currently schedule their cockpit crews. The rules will go into effect in two years to give airlines time to implement them. I appreciate the fact that these rules are driven by passenger safety instead of airlines’ bottom lines.
Over the last 15 years, NASA and the FAA have conducted studies on the correlation between pilot schedules, fatigue and aircraft accidents. Data tabulated from these studies point to exponential increases in accident rates for pilots who exceed eight to nine hours behind the controls of aircraft. In almost every accident, fatigue had been a major contributor linking the chain of events. Aftermath and research reports show that when fatigued, pilots tend to make riskier and more impulsive decisions, become more easily fixated and react slowly to warnings or signs that an alternative course of action is called for.
Rest rules limit the number of hours we can spend “on duty” each day, along with monthly flight time limits. When a flight is delayed at the gate, the duty time clock is ticking even though we’re not flying: Pilots have a limited “shelf life.” Creeping delays are particularly frustrating and cause cascading problems for crew schedulers. The longer the duty day, the more fatigued we become. The more fatigued we become, the more dangerous it is for us to be behind the controls of your aircraft. If our duty limits are reached, the day is over for us and we must walk away from the plane. This requires a new crew to be found for your flight.
The new rules integrate the most current fatigue studies to set stringent limits on flight time, duty period and rest. What is more important: Circadian rhythms are taken into account, and duty days are shorter when your trip starts in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. Consideration is also given to the number of segments we are scheduled to fly as well as the number of time zones we traverse. Potential cumulative fatigue is also addressed by limiting flight time over a 28-day period and setting yearly limits. Pilots must also have at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis (a 25 percent increase over the old rules). The old rest rule of eight hours before flight duty has been increased to a minimum of 10. This rule gives us a greater opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. (The old rule failed to consider travel time to and from the airport when setting tight flight schedules. For example, my trip from Tokyo Narita to the hotel is an hour and 45 minutes in a van.)
The new rules covering international flights have particular implications for long-haul pilots like me. On long flights (over eight hours), airlines are required to add a third pilot to the cockpit crew. Over 12 hours, the airline must add a fourth pilot. These rules have not changed. What has changed is the way the FAA classifies the facilities where pilots go to get their rest. The new classification sets duty limits based on where the rest area is onboard the aircraft. A Class 1 (bunk room) facility is an area separate from the cabin that provides light and temperature control and allows the pilot to lie completely flat. This is the type of rest area most coveted by pilots, but it’s still not perfect: Because of pressurization noise, low humidity and cabin altitude, the quality of sleep is substantially degraded. A Class 2 rest facility means a seat in the cabin that allows for a flat or nearly flat sleeping position, is separated from passengers by a curtain or wall to provide darkness with some sound mitigation and is reasonably free from disturbance by passengers or flight attendants. A Class 3 rest facility is a seat in the cabin that reclines at least 40 degrees and provides leg and foot support. The Class 1 rest facility allows for the longest duty day for its pilots; if the aircraft has the Class 3 facility, the pilots will have a shorter duty day. Obviously, longer duty days offer more flexibility for the airlines, especially for delays. I currently fly the 777, which has only Class 1 and 2 rest facilities.
Airlines rarely favor an increase in pilot rest times because of the costs associated with the perceived loss of productivity, but in this case, we’re talking about safety and the priceless value of human life. I believe these changes will pay great dividends in the long run and greatly enhance the safety aspect of carrying such precious cargo: you.
Did You Know?
When a flight is delayed at the gate, pilots are not being paid. Crew pay begins when the plane pushes back and ends at the destination gate.
On Your Mind
Readers pose their questions on air travel.
Why can you use autopilot to land but not take off? —Jeff Bell, Martinez, Calif.
Great question! We use autothrottles for takeoff to set a preprogrammed thrust setting, but cannot use the autopilot for several reasons. Takeoffs require a great deal of attention from pilots due to higher than usual engine power settings needed to get the aircraft airborne. High power settings can cause pilot control difficulties due to asymmetric thrust if there is an engine failure. Current technology installed in most airliners’ autopilots can’t compensate (add rudder) quickly enough for a loss of thrust (failed engine) during a takeoff. Because of this, pilots are trained constantly to handle engine failures on takeoff manually. Other than flying instrument approaches, we practice engine failures on takeoff more than any other procedure.
Chris Cooke has been a pilot with a major domestic carrier for 20 years and currently flies long-haul routes on the 777. He began his career with the U.S. Marine Corps, received Navy flight training and was a Top Gun graduate. In 2012 he will log more than 300,000 miles, all in a window seat. Have a question you’d like Chris Cooke to answer in a future issue? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.