Capt. Prater Testifies on Pilot Fatigue at Senate Hearing

December 1, 2009 - ALPA’s president, Capt. John Prater, testified at a U.S. Senate hearing this morning in Washington, D.C., on the subject of pilot fatigue. This is the seventh time this year Prater has gone to Capitol Hill to represent line pilots’ point of view on vitally important aviation safety issues. Prater reiterated ALPA’s position that the new flight-time and duty-time (FTDT) rules and minimum rest requirements that FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt has promised by next year must (1) be based on science, (2) be uniform for all types of airline flight operations, with no “carveouts” for air cargo or charter operations, and (3) incorporate fatigue risk management systems (FRMS).

Click on the image to view a photo slideshow of the hearing.

The Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held the hearing, with subcommittee chairman Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) presiding.

Citing 273 deaths in 20 U.S. airline accidents in as many years in which the NTSB cited pilot fatigue as a contributing factor, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said, “The stories we have heard [about pilot fatigue] are fairly frightening.” He declared, “Another false start [by the FAA in revamping FTDT regulations] would be unacceptable . . . This hearing has to be a catalyst [to bring about FTDT reform].”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) asserted that a fatigued pilot is “an invitation to disaster.”

Prater asserted, “We badly need a new flight- and duty-time regulation. While we have been told it will be done in mid-2010, we have seen too many times in the past that the FAA has not delivered on its promises with regard to pilot-fatigue regulations. We respectfully solicit Congress’s active support in ensuring that this new regulation becomes a reality.”

Dorgan agreed with Prater’s assessment that the current crisis of pilot fatigue is “dire” and echoed Prater’s skepticism that the FAA will deliver meaningful FTDT reform in a timely fashion.

Peggy Gilligan, FAA associate administrator for Aviation Safety, said in her prepared statement, “This time our efforts are different.” She acknowledged that the FAA’s timetable for releasing the FTDT notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) has slipped a month—i.e., to the end of January 2010. “It has taken us longer than any of us wanted,” she confessed. “We will get it right this time.”

Basil Barimo, vice president of Operations and Safety, Air Transport Association, said ATA supports “a duty-day regulation designed to account for fatigue risks, including circadian cycles, time awake, time on task, and acclimation to time zones. Our goal is to mitigate fatigue risk by reducing the duty time of pilots, expanding scheduled rest opportunities to ensure adequate rest, and increasing pilots’ awareness of fatigue risk and their personal role in mitigating that risk.”

William R. Voss, president and CEO, Flight Safety Foundation, focused on the pressing need for FRMS. He declared, “The United States should be leading the world on fatigue management as it has led the world on so many advances in aviation safety. Civil aviation authorities all around the world are using the research undertaken by NASA and ICAO to mitigate the risk that comes from a fatigued aviation workforce. The time is now for the FAA, the operators, management, and labor to come together and develop a consensus on this vital issue.”

Members of the subcommittee peppered the witnesses with a number of questions dealing with fatigue, commuting, the FAA’s current rulemaking efforts, the role of low pay scales for regional airline pilots, the potential role of FAA-approved controlled cockpit napping, the current minimum requirements for obtaining commercial and ATP certificates, and more.

Look for additional coverage in the upcoming January/February 2010 issue of Air Line Pilot.

To view the archived hearing, and to read the written statements of the witnesses and subcommittee chairman Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-WV), click here.