FAA clarifies pilot hours; industry warns of delays
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Pilots cannot remain on duty indefinitely even if there are delays beyond the airline's control, the Federal Aviation Administration advised a pilots' union in a letter released Thursday.
The Air Transport Association (ATA), representing major U.S. airlines, reacted quickly by issuing a warning that a strict interpretation of existing rules could worsen flight delays.
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But the Allied Pilots Association, representing pilots at American Airlines, praised the FAA letter for establishing 16 hours as the maximum time a pilot can be on duty.
In the letter, dated November 20, FAA Deputy Chief Counsel James Whitlow said that pilots, at a minimum, must finish their day and be able to identify an eight-hour rest period within the previous 24 hours.
Those eight hours of rest may not be reduced by an unforeseen ground delay, he added.
"The flight may not take off if the look-back rest period is reduced to less than eight hours," Whitlow wrote, responding to various scenarios put forward by the union.
Further, within duty time, flying time is limited to a maximum of eight hours in 24 hours, with an exception for unforeseen in-air delays.
"We've always held that if a pilot is legal to begin a flight then the pilot is also legal to complete that flight," said ATA spokesman Michael Wascom.
"Our concern is that the Allied Pilots position could add unnecessary disruption to the air traffic system," Wascom said.
The major airlines in September announced formation of an expert panel on pilot fatigue and specifically pledged to work toward establishing clear duty limits.
"This loophole in the regulations should be eliminated," ATA said at the time.
Wascom said that remained the objective. "At the same time, we don't support the way by which the Allied Pilots made this request for interpretation," Wascom said.
Rich Rubin, a member of the union's safety committee, acknowledged that the FAA clarification could result in occasional delays when fatigued pilots were replaced with rested reserve pilots but said most of the problems could be reduced by realistic scheduling by the carriers.
"Nothing is more important in the cockpit to ensure the safety of our passengers than rested and vigilant pilots," said Rubin, a 767 pilot at American Airlines.
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly urged the airline industry and the FAA to reform duty-time regulations to take advantage of new knowledge about circadian rhythms and human sleep needs.
The FAA issued proposals for new pilot hours in 1995, but a lengthy advisory committee process failed to reach consensus.
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September 13, 2000
Federal Aviation Administration
Air Transport Association
Allied Pilots Association
National Transportation Safety Board
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