Pilot Fatigue

Friday, September 10, 2010

Last year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Randy Babbitt identified the issue of pilot fatigue as a top priority during the Airline Safety Call to Action following the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in February 2009. Administrator Babbitt launched an aggressive effort to take advantage of the latest research on fatigue to create a new pilot flight, duty and rest proposal based on fatigue science.

Updated rules are necessary and must take into account today’s modern, global aviation system. After years of debate, the FAA published a landmark Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in September 2010 which would allow pilots more rest and give airlines the flexibility to integrate fatigue science into their scheduling practices.

This new proposal recognizes that airplanes operate globally over multiple time zones and that short-leg, multi-leg, and long-haul flights all present challenges. In addition, technology has evolved to enable airplanes to fly much further than in the past. In this environment, a variety of factors can affect pilot alertness, judgment and performance. Those factors include: the time of day of a flight; day-night or night-day transitions; daytime sleep periods; time off between consecutive work periods; the number of takeoffs and landings in a given time period; the impact of time zone changes on circadian rhythms; early start times; and commuting.

The proposal includes provisions related to a pilot’s commute, including consideration of commute time when determining rest periods, and consideration of flight and duty time in relation to a pilot’s “home base.” The FAA welcomes public comment on strategies to address this important issue.

While FAA rules already state that a pilot must be fit for duty, the FAA is proposing to strengthen that requirement. Under the proposal, an air carrier would not be able to assign (and, a pilot would not be able to accept) an assignment if the pilot is too fatigued. In addition, a company employee who suspects a pilot of being too fatigued to perform his or her duties during flight would be able to report that information to the air carrier, so that the air carrier could make a determination of whether or not the pilot is too fatigued to fly.

The public will have 60 days to comment on all provisions in the proposal which is available at http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published/.

The FAA will then issue a final rule by August 1, 2011. 

What is fatigue?

Fatigue is a general lack of alertness and degradation in mental and physical performance. There are three types of fatigue: transient, cumulative, and circadian. 

In aviation, fatigue may cause a pilot to fall asleep during cruise flight or it may impact alertness during take-off or landing. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has included an item to “Reduce Accidents and Incidents Caused by Human Fatigue in the Aviation Industry” as an action area in their aviation safety “Most Wanted List.”

Although sleep science is evolving, research has indicated that most people need eight hours of sleep in 24 hours to perform effectively, and the average person needs in excess of nine hours of sleep per night to recover from accumulated sleep debt. Most people find it more difficult to sleep during the day than at night. In addition, the risks of fatigue and making a mistake increase the longer a person has been awake and working on a task. 

Key differences between the new proposal and the current rules

  • The proposal reflects the universal nature of fatigue. The proposed rules would be the same for all types of Part 121 flights (passenger and cargo airlines): domestic, flag (international), or supplemental (unscheduled). There are currently different requirements for each of these categories of operations.  The proposed rule does not apply to Part 135 operators, but FAA may address fatigue for Part 135 operators in the future. 
  • Unlike the current rules, the proposal provides a circadian component for reducing the flight time and duty time when the pilot is operating in his or her window of circadian low.
  • The proposal clearly states that fatigue mitigation is the joint responsibility of both the airline and the pilot. A pilot may not accept an assignment if that pilot is too fatigued to fly.
  • The proposal would give airlines the flexibility to adopt individual Fatigue Risk Management Systems.  Fatigue Risk Management Plans, recently mandated by Congress and now addressed by FAA policy, would set out a carrier’s own policies and procedures for reducing the risk of fatigue and improving alertness. These plans are specific to an air carrier’s type of operations, are subject to the FAA’s review and acceptance, and include fatigue education and awareness training.


  • The FAA proposes to set a nine-hour minimum for rest prior to flying-related duty, a one-hour increase over the minimum in current rules.

Flight Time

  • Weekly: The proposal provides pilots with at least 30 consecutive hours per week free from all duty, compared to the current 24 hours free from all duty on a weekly basis – a 25 percent increase.
  • Monthly: Under the proposal, there is a 100-hour maximum for flight time in any 28 days. Current rules set a limit of 100 hours for every 30 days.
  • Yearly: There is a current limit of 1,000 hours in any calendar year for domestic flights.  Under the proposal, all types of operations will now be limited to 1,000 hours per 365 days.

Duty Time

There is currently a 16-hour duty period between rest periods.  The proposal would limit the daily flight duty period to 13-hours, which could slide to nine hours at night (depending on take-off time and number of segments scheduled).

Recent FAA Guidance

The FAA has published the following guidance to help air carriers and pilots prepare Fatigue Risk Management Plans:


Withdrawal of the 1995 proposal

In order to move forward with a new rulemaking, the FAA formally withdrew the old proposal by publishing a notice in the Federal Register on November 23, 2009. The notice reiterated that the 1995 proposal was outdated and raised many significant issues. 

Fatigue ARC

On June 24, 2009, Administrator Babbitt announced that the FAA would undertake an expedited review of flight and rest rules. This followed Administrator Babbitt and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s June 15 meeting with airline safety executives and pilot unions to strategize on how to best reduce risk at regional airlines. The FAA chartered an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which began work in July. The ARC, which consisted of representatives from FAA, industry, and labor organizations, was charged with producing recommendations for a science-based approach to fatigue management. The ARC forwarded its recommendations to Administrator Babbitt on September 9, 2009.

2008 FAA Fatigue Symposium

In June 2008, the FAA sponsored the Fatigue Symposium: Partnerships for Solutions to encourage the aviation community to proactively address aviation fatigue management issues. Participants included the NTSB, the Institutes for Behavior Resources, Inc., and many of the world’s leading authorities on sleep and human performance. The symposium provided attendees with the most current information on fatigue physiology, management, and mitigation alternatives; perspectives from aviation industry experts and scientists on fatigue management; and information on the latest fatigue mitigation initiatives and best practices.