(WASHINGTON) — Two years after 50 people perished in an airplane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the Federal Aviation Administration issued a new rule Wednesday to combat pilot fatigue, but placed the final responsibility with the pilots to say when they’re too tired to fly and, as one Congressman put it, to “tuck [themselves] in at night.”
“While the final rule provides improvement for aviation safety, pilots must take personal responsibility for coming to work rested and fit for duty,” Rep. John Mica, R.-Florida, said after the FAA’s announcement. “The government cannot put a chocolate on every one of their pillows and tuck them in at night.”
Under what the FAA said was a “sweeping final rule,” pilots will be subject to new flight time limits and a mandatory ten-hour rest period between duty time, but the rule did not directly address the problem uncovered in an ABC News investigation of commuting pilots who have to travel from their home bases to duty elsewhere, often getting little sleep in difficult conditions before takeoff.
Rather, the new rules simply say pilots must report themselves unfit for duty to the airlines if they’re too exhausted, something aviators told ABC News previously they’re wary of doing for fear of reprisals.
“The FAA expects pilots and airlines to take joint responsibility when considering if a pilot is fit for duty, including fatigue resulting from pre-duty activities such as commuting,” the new rules say, according to the FAA. “At the beginning of each flight segment, a pilot is required to affirmatively state his or her fitness for duty. If a pilot reports he or she is fatigued and unfit for duty, the airline must remove that pilot from duty immediately.”
Scott Maurer, who lost his 30-year-old daughter Lorin in the Buffalo crash, told ABC News Wednesday he and the other victims’ families are “frustrated” with the FAA.
“The families are frustrated that commuting has not been an issue that has been addressed from a regulatory standpoint at this time,” Maurer said. “We requested that this is an item that is brought back up on their agenda and are awaiting some response to that.”
An ABC News investigation in February revealed commuting pilots across the country pilots were struggling just to get sleep in crew lounges and so-called “crash pads” before taking commercial aircraft into the skies, sometimes with hundreds of passengers aboard. Undercover video of crew lounges taken by pilots and provided to ABC News during the investigation showed pilots asleep overnight in chairs and on sofas. Current and former pilots described missing radio calls, entering incorrect readings in instruments and even falling asleep mid-flight.
The new rules also do not specifically address the use of crash pads and sleep in crew lounges, which are already contrary to airline rules. At the time of ABC News’ investigation, then-FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said industry representatives told him the use of such stopgap fixes, “simply isn’t going on.”
In the past 20 years, more than two dozen accidents and more than 250 fatalities have been linked to pilot fatigue, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Former Continental Express pilot Josh Reikes told ABC News at the time of the investigation that one captain jokingly warned him, “Don’t you ever let me wake up and find you sleeping.”
One of the most vocal groups pushing for new rules are the family members of some of the 50 victims of the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo. In that case, the pilot of the plane, who commuted to his Newark base from Florida, had spent the night before sleeping in a crew lounge at Newark airport, raising concerns about the role of fatigue with safety investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board. The co-pilot had commuted to work on overnight flights from Seattle and also tried to sleep in the crew lounge, unable to afford a hotel room. Later, internal Colgan emails reportedly raised questions about the pilot’s training and capabilities: pilot error was ultimately found to be the cause of the crash.
“We did recognize that they were likely impaired by fatigue,” Deborah Hersman, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said after the NTSB’s initial investigation.
The NTSB also found that about 70 percent of the Colgan Air pilots based at Newark were commuters, many coming from long distances to work. Approximately 20 percent commuted from more than 1,000 miles away.
The FAA missed two deadlines for implementing the new rules before Wednesday’s announcement and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D.-New York, previously said the airline industry was possibly stalling them on purpose. A representative for Airlines for America, the major trade group for airlines formerly known as the Air Transport Association, told ABC News earlier this month, “We believe the rules need to be changed and [we] continue to advocate for rules that are based on science and are proven to improve safety.”
According to the FAA, the new rules are expected to cost the aviation industry nearly $300 million.
“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,” Transportation Secretary LaHood said Wednesday.
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