Pilot Flight Time, Rest, and Fatigue

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ensuring that all pilots receive adequate rest is key to maintaining a safe aviation system. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has made the creation of new flight, duty, and rest rules based on fatigue science a high priority. The FAA is working on an aggressive timeline to issue a new proposal this spring.

Airplanes operate globally in 24 time zones. Domestic short leg, multi-leg, and long-haul flights all present challenges. Engine technology has evolved enabling airplanes to fly much further than in the past. Since many air carriers fly non-stop ultra-long-range flights, the FAA continues to evaluate the latest research on the effects of time zone changes on circadian rhythm and time zone changes to mitigate pilot fatigue. The FAA continues to be at the forefront of raising awareness of fatigue and mitigation techniques.

The FAA last proposed updating the rules in 1995 but, based on industry comments, the rule was not adopted. Since then, the agency has reiterated the rules and kept pace with a changing industry by allowing airlines to use the latest fatigue mitigation techniques to enhance safety.

Overview of the Current Federal Aviation Regulations

Regulations limiting flight time and pilot rest have been in place since the 1940s. The rules for domestic flights do no explicitly address the amount of time a pilot can be on duty. Rather, the rules address flight time limitations and required rest periods. Current FAA regulations for domestic flights generally limit pilots to eight hours of flight time during a 24-hour period. This limit may be extended provided the pilot receives additional rest at the end of the flight. However, a pilot is not allowed to accept, nor is an airline allowed to assign, a flight if the pilot has not has at least eight continuous 

hours of rest during the 24-hour period. In other words, the pilot needs to be able to look back in any preceding 24-hour period and find that he/she has had an opportunity for at least eight hours of rest. If a pilot’s actual rest is less than nine hours in the 24-hour period, the next rest period must be lengthened to provide for the appropriate compensatory rest. Airline rules may be stricter than the FAA’s regulations if the issue is part of a collective bargaining agreement.

Flight time and rest rules for U.S. air carrier international flights are different from the rules for domestic flights. International flights can involve more than the standard two-pilot crew and are more complex due to the scope of the operations. For international flights that require more than 12 hours of flight time, air carriers must establish rest periods and provide adequate sleeping facilities outside of the cockpit for in-flight rest.

An air carrier may not schedule any pilot and no pilot may accept an assignment for flight time in scheduled air transportation or other commercial flying if that pilot’s total flight time will exceed the regulatory limits.

It is the responsibility of both the air carrier and the pilot to prevent fatigue, not only by following the regulations, but also by acting responsibly while serving the traveling public. This means taking into consideration weather conditions, air traffic, the health of each pilot, and any other personal circumstances that may affect a pilot’s performance. The FAA has recommended that air carriers include fatigue training as part of their crew resource management training programs.

FAA Actions

Withdrawal of the 1995 Proposal

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

Fatigue ARC

On June 24, 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 by September 1. The ARC met their deadline and provided the FAA with a broad framework for drafting the basis for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

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 National Transportation Safety Board, 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.

Ultra Long-Range Flights

In 2006, the FAA worked with Delta Air Lines to develop and approve fatigue mitigation for flights between John F. Kennedy International Airport and Mumbai, India. The flights were operated for more than 16 hours with four pilots provided that the airline followed an FAA-approved plan to manage rest and mitigate the risk posed by fatigue. The mitigation, approved as an Operations Specification issued to Delta Air Lines, was specific for that city pair. Although that specific route is no longer flown by Delta, the FAA viewed Delta’s fatigue mitigation strategy as a model program.

As a result of Delta’s efforts, the FAA proposed in November 2008 to amend Delta’s, American’s, and Continental’s Operations Specifications to incorporate fatigue mitigation plans for their ultra long-range flights. Based on comments received from the three air carriers, the FAA withdrew the proposed amendments on March 12, 2009. The FAA is currently working with airlines to gather data that will help the agency enhance the safety requirements for ultra long-range flights. The agency believes that it is in the best interest of passenger and crew safety for airlines to use an FAA-approved fatigue mitigation program to reduce the risk of pilot fatigue.

2001 ATA/RAA Request

The FAA denied requests made on June 12, 2001 on behalf of the Air Transport Association (ATA) and Regional Airline Association (RAA) to stay all agency action regarding the November 20, 2000 Whitlow letter of interpretation and the May 17, 2001 Federal Register notice of the FAA’s enforcement policy regarding pilot flight time and rest. The FAA’s letter and Federal Register notice were consistent with the agency’s long-standing interpretation of the current rules. The documents were consistent with the statutory mandate to issue rules governing the maximum hours or periods of service, the use of plain language in regulations and the regulatory history of the rules. ATA subsequently petitioned for review of the Whitlow letter and the enforcement policy.

On Sept. 5, 2001 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted a motion by the ATA to stay the May 17, 2001 Federal Register notice. On May 31, 2002, the court denied ATA’s petition for review, ruling in favor of the FAA.

2001 Federal Register Notice

An FAA in the May 17, 2001 Federal Register reiterated the agency’s long-standing interpretation of pilot flight time and rest rules. The notice informed airlines and flight crews of the FAA’s intent to enforce its rules in accordance with the Whitlow letter. Each flight crewmember must have a minimum of eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period that includes flight time. That calculation must be based on the actual conditions on the day of departure regardless of whether the length of the flight is longer or shorter than the originally scheduled flight time. The FAA did not anticipate that the notice would result in major disruptions to airline schedules. Beginning November 2001, the FAA would review airline flight scheduling practices and deal stringently violations. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted a stay of the notice.

2000 FAA Letter

On November 20, 2000, the FAA responded to a letter from the Allied Pilots Association that set forth specific scenarios that could affect a very small number of all commercial pilots. The FAA’s response, known as the “Whitlow Letter,” was consistent with the agency’s long-standing interpretation of the current rules. In summary, the FAA reiterated that each flight crewmember must have a minimum of eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period that includes flight time. The scheduled flight time must be calculated using the actual conditions on the day of departure regardless of whether the length of the flight is longer or shorter than the originally scheduled flight time.

1999 Federal Register Notice

In response to concerns raised by the pilot community, the FAA Administrator notified the aviation community on June 15, 1999 that it had six months to ensure that it was in full compliance with the agency’s current flight time and rest requirements. Reviews of airline scheduling practices conducted in December 1999 and discussions with pilot unions and airlines confirmed that the vast majority of pilots are receiving the amount of rest required by the FAA’s rule.

1998 ARAC

In July 1998, the FAA tasked the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) to work with the industry to reach a consensus and develop a new proposal. If no consensus could be reached, the FAA would subsequently enforce the current regulations. In February 1999, ARAC reported that there was no consensus. The group offered five different proposals to update the flight and rest regulations.

1995 Proposal for Pilots

In 1995, the FAA proposed a rule to change flight time and rest limits. The agency received more than 2,000 comments from the aviation community and the public. Most of those comments did not favor the rule as proposed, and there was no clear consensus on what the final rule should say. Highlights of the 1995 proposal:

  • Reduce the number of duty hours (the time a flight crewmember is on the job, available to fly) from the current 16 hours to 14 hours for two-pilot crews. It would have allowed up to 10 flight hours in the 14 duty hours. Current rules allow up to 16 hours continuous duty time.
  • Additional duty hours would be permitted only for unexpected operational problems, such as flight delays. In no event could such delays add more than two hours to the pilot’s duty day.
  • Airlines could no longer schedule pilots in advance that exceeds the duty time.
  • To ensure that pilots have an adequate opportunity to rest, off-duty time would be increased from eight hours to 10 hours under the proposal.
  • Pilots would have to be given at least one 36-hour off-duty period every seven days. Current rules call for a 24-hour period.