ALPA Fights Pilot Fatigue: 89 Years of Unrelenting Action
By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer
Since ALPA’s inception in 1931, Association members have been working tirelessly to establish reasonable limits for flight and duty time and develop rules that ensure adequate rest between duty periods.
Today, the Association continues its safety efforts, fighting to reverse the profit-based carveout that excludes cargo pilots from updated science-based rest rules. “Airline pilots are affected by fatigue the same, regardless of whether we fly passengers or freight. It’s time for Congress to pass the Safe Skies Act and ensure one level of safety for all airline operations,” said Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president (see section below “Addressing the Cargo Carveout”).
How Did We Get Here? The First Battle
In 1931, the U.S. Commerce Department set a monthly flight-time limit of 110 hours for pilots. While airline owners and operators wanted 140 hours per month, Capt. Dave Behncke, ALPA’s founder and first president, campaigned for 85 hours per month.
After three years of intense lobbying, the National Labor Board agreed with Behncke and ALPA, leading to Decision 83, which reduced the cap on flight time to 85 hours per month for pilots. It was later codified into law with the creation of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1938, which also established domestic flight-time rules, limiting flight time to eight hours in a 24-hour period. However, this would be increased to 30 hours per week in 1942 as pilots were desperately needed during World War II.
Amending Flight-Time Limits
For decades to follow, fatigue-related issues would mainly be limited to matters regarding flag (international) and supplemental air carriers. Between 1946 and 1982, the CAB and its successor agency, the FAA, would issue 30 proposals to amend flight-time limits. Key among them was a moratorium on a series of flight-time rules put forward by the FAA in 1962.
In 1976, ALPA sued the FAA to remove this moratorium. After several years of intense negotiations among ALPA, the airline industry, and the FAA, the agency published a rule on domestic flight-time/duty-time limitations (FT/DT), the first successful rulemaking on this issue since the 1940s. Within several years, however, shortcomings and loopholes were identified in the new regulations.
In July 1985, more than half a century after ALPA’s inception and its advocacy on the issue, F/O Bruce Woodruff (Delta), then chair of ALPA’s FT/DT Committee, wrote to the Association’s Board of Directors regarding a final rule that the FAA had issued earlier that month, amending flight-time limits and minimum rest requirements for airline pilots.
“ALPA has struggled with the interpretation of flight and duty regulations, coupled with noncompliance by the majority of air carriers,” Woodruff stated. “In addition, during that period the FAA issued numerous notices of proposed rulemaking [NPRMs] that would have been disastrous to ALPA had they gone into effect. Since 1980 alone, ALPA has successfully engineered the withdrawal of three such NPRMs.
“While NPRM 84-3 was basically favorable to ALPA, three proposed changes contained therein were not.... [However,] in this final rule, all areas of concern outlined by ALPA have been addressed and are favorable to air safety.”
The Winds of Change
A decade after the FAA issued its 1985 rule on FT/DT limits and rest requirements, the agency proposed another rule change that would reduce the flight-duty limit from the then current 16 hours to 14 hours for two-pilot flight crews and increase flight time to 10 hours in the 14 duty hours. Extensions for unexpected operational problems would be allowed for events like flight delays but could add no more than two hours to a pilot’s duty day.
Furthermore, operators could no longer schedule pilots in advance in a way that would exceed the duty-time limit, and minimum rest would be increased from eight hours to 10 hours—with pilots receiving at least one 36-hour off-duty period every seven days.
The FAA received more than 2,000 comments, mostly unfavorable, on NPRM 95-18. With no clear consensus emerging regarding the final rule, no rule was issued.
In 1998, then FAA Administrator Jane Garvey asked the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) to work with the airline industry to reach consensus on a revised reserve rest requirement. She noted that if no agreement could be reached, the FAA would subsequently enforce the current regulations—which required airlines to give pilots on reserve duty at least nine hours of rest before being put on reserve “on call” status.
However, these rules were ineffectively enforced as airlines interpreted the rule to say that no specified rest was required before a pilot could be called to fly. In February 1999, the ARAC reported its lack of consensus. As a result, ALPA applied pressure to the FAA, and in December 1999 the agency informed airlines that it would enforce the rule as intended.
In November 2000, FAA Deputy Chief Counsel James Whitlow issued an interpretation of the 16-hour rule in terms of delays, stating, “If, when using the actual expected flight time [for a flight segment], the carrier cannot find at least eight hours of look-back rest upon arrival, then the flight may not depart [on that segment].”
Dubbed the “Whitlow letter,” it required both pilots and airlines to continuously monitor delays, particularly during long duty periods, to ensure that a flight wouldn’t violate the rest requirements under the regulations. Both shared the responsibility to not violate the rule.
ALPA argued in favor of the interpretation when it was challenged by the airlines, saying that blocking the interpretation would essentially allow airlines to keep pilots on duty for unlimited periods of time, particularly if pilots had no contractual protections limiting their duty time. Ultimately, the interpretation was upheld in federal court.
Beginning in 2007, with the strategic planning session of ALPA’s Executive Council, the Association placed a renewed emphasis on, and resources behind, bringing FT/DT limits and rest requirements into the modern age.
That October, Capt. John Prater, then ALPA’s president, announced the creation of the Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Fatigue. Building on the work done by the previous ALPA Pilot Fatigue Task Force created in 2005, Prater charged the five-pilot panel with reviewing the science and economics surrounding pilot fatigue and the regulations regarding FT/DT limits and minimum rest requirements in both Canada and the U.S.
The panel then developed recommendations for ALPA’s leaders to take to address FT/DT concerns. During the Association’s October 2008 Board of Directors meeting, ALPA recommitted itself to setting flight- and duty-time reform as a top strategic priority.
Acting on the recommendations by ALPA’s top governing bodies, the Association testified before the U.S. Congress several times and visited key Members of Congress about the need to overhaul the FAA’s antiquated rules.
Then on Feb. 12, 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407, operating as a Continental Connection flight, crashed on approach to Buffalo, N.Y. Fifty people were killed, including all four crewmembers on board the Bombardier Dash 8-Q400; the 45 passengers, including a nonrevenue Colgan pilot; and one individual on the ground.
The Birth of FAR Part 117
While the investigation was under way, the Association succeeded in getting language included in the Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009 directing the FAA to update flight- and duty-time rules to incorporate science-based knowledge about fatigue.
In response, then FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, a former ALPA president, created an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) that was composed of approximately 30 members, including ALPA, from all segments of the industry. The ARC was tasked with developing consensus-based recommendations and led to an NPRM by the end of 2009.
In June 2009, the NTSB investigation of the Colgan crash was concluded, and the board issued 25 safety recommendations, including one (A-10-16) requiring airlines to address fatigue risks.
As a result, the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010 was signed into law. The act, which ALPA was instrumental in bringing about, directed the FAA to set FT/DT limits and minimum rest requirements based on scientific evidence regarding pilot fatigue.
New Rules, New Problems
On Jan. 4, 2012, the FAA published a final rule titled “Flightcrew Member Duty and Rest Requirements.” In that rule, the FAA created FAR Part 117, which replaced the existing flight, duty, and rest regulations for Part 121 passenger operations. As part of this rulemaking, the FAA also applied the new regulations to certain Part 91, general aviation, operations.
However, based on a flawed cost-benefit analysis conducted by the FAA, all-cargo operations operating under Part 121 were not required to follow Part 117’s flight, duty, and rest regulations.
“The conclusions of the report cited the costs to the all-cargo industry as being $550 million over a 12-year period, while providing a benefit of only $31 million,” said Capt. Brian Noyes (United), ALPA’s FT/DT Committee chair, in 2019. “This, however, only factors in the aircraft, the crew, and its contents. It fails to consider numerous other factors that can occur in an accident, like the location. Recent accidents, like Atlas Air Flight 3591, have been in sparsely populated areas. But move the accident site 10 miles to the west, and that places it in the heart of downtown Houston.”
NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman expressed her disappointment on the exclusion of cargo operations in the final rule, saying, “A tired pilot is a tired pilot, whether there are 10 paying customers on board or 100, whether the payload is passengers or pallets.”
As part of the Association’s mission to establish one level of safety for all pilots, work to eliminate the Part 117 cargo carveout began immediately after the final rule was published. In April 2012, the Safe Skies Act was introduced by Reps. Chip Cravaack (R-MN) and Tim Bishop (D-NY) to close the loophole. Lauding the bill, Capt. Lee Moak, then ALPA’s president, said, “All airline pilots are human beings, and all airline operations should benefit from the same high safety standards. This bill would achieve what Congress intended when it passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Act of 2010 by mandating that the FAA’s regulations apply to all commercial airline pilots, regardless of whether they fly passengers or cargo.”
Passenger-carrying pilots largely embraced the science-based fatigue rules. In fall 2013, ALPA created apps for Apple and Android smartphones to help pilots calculate their limitations with the new rules and published copies of letters of interpretations issued by the FAA.
Progress in Canada
Because many of the FT/DT regulations in Canada dated back to the 1970s and progress had been made in this area elsewhere in the world, ALPA succeeded in convincing Transport Canada to form a working group of pilots, airlines, and government subject-matter experts to develop new science-based rules. The group, created in 2014 and cochaired by Capt. Dan Adamus, then ALPA Canada president, developed recommendations that formed the basis of the new rules. In 2017, due to delays in creating draft regulations, ALPA and pilots from other associations across Canada called on the government to enact stronger fatigue rules for all Canadian airline pilots.
Their efforts to have science applied to the regulations were rewarded in December 2018 when Transport Canada published changes to the current FT/DT regulations.
Previously, an airline pilot’s flight-duty period was capped at 13 hours and 45 minutes. The new rules set a maximum work day anywhere from nine to 13 hours, depending on start time. The rules also lowered the number of flight hours for pilots to 1,000 from 1,200 over 365 days. The new regulations apply to commercial transport services in Canada, which includes small, regional, and major Canadian airline operators. Cargo operations are also included.
“While the regulations announced today do not address all of our concerns and recommendations,” stated Adamus, “they’re a significant improvement over the current rules and will improve aviation safety.”
“We’re confident that with the continued support of pilots across the country, we’ll be able to address the shortcomings in the long-awaited flight- and duty-time regulations, as well as provide a workplace for pilots that reduces and manages fatigue effectively,” noted Capt. Tim Perry, ALPA Canada president.
Addressing the Cargo Carveout
In 2019, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reintroduced and sponsored the Safe Skies Act in the U.S. Senate (S. 826), while Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA) did the same in the House of Representatives (H.R. 5170). The act, if signed into law, would apply one level of safety for all-cargo operations in the same manner as passenger operations by ensuring that cargo pilots have the same flight, duty, and rest requirements as their passenger-carrying counterparts to prevent dangers posed by fatigued pilots.
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and failing to cover cargo pilots under the same fatigue rules that passenger-carrying airline pilots benefit from is a clear and present flaw in today’s rules,” said DePete.
Timeline of Major Flight Time/Duty Time Events
Commerce Department sets monthly flight-time limit of 110 hours. Operators want 140 hours per month, but ALPA’s founder and first president, Capt. Dave Behncke, campaigns for 85 hours per month.
ALPA prevails—National Labor Board’s Decision 83 limits flight time to 85 hours per month.
Decision 83 is incorporated into the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938. Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) issues domestic flight-time rules, limiting flight time to eight hours in a 24-hour period.
CAB amends rules to limit flight time to 30 hours per week.
CAB issues flag (international) and supplemental flight-time rules.
CAB and FAA issue 30 proposals to amend flight-time limits.
CAB amends supplemental and flag rules, saying deadheading is not rest.
FAA issues moratorium on series of flight-time rules.
ALPA sues FAA to remove moratorium.
FAA revises domestic flight limit rules, establishing that rest is still required even after less than eight hours of flight time, and includes a look-back provision.
Air Transport Association (twice), Regional Airline Association, and ALPA file petitions for rulemaking.
FAA limits two-pilot flight crews of airlines in flag operations to eight hours of flight time.
“Reducing Fatigue-Related Accidents” is placed on the NTSB’s Most Wanted list.
FAA issues bulletin to enforce the interpretation of “reserve rest” rule. It fails to achieve meaningful progress.
FAA issues Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) 95-18 to revise all flight- and duty-time limits and minimum rest requirements.
After ALPA applies considerable public pressure, FAA informs airlines that the agency will enforce the reserve rest rule, which requires airlines to give pilots on reserve duty at least nine hours of rest before being put on reserve.
FAA issues “Whitlow letter,” limiting domestic duty to 16 hours.
ALPA renews pledge to improve flight-time/duty-time (FT/DT) rules.
Crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407.
FAA creates FT/DT Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC); seven ALPA pilots serve on the ARC, which gives recommendations to FAA.
FAA issues FT/DT NPRM.
FAA publishes final rule on FT/DT, creating FAR Part 117 and the cargo carveout.
The Safe Skies Act is introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives
FAA publishes more than 50 letters of interpretation on aspects of FAR Part 117.
Transport Canada overhauls the nation’s FT/DT rules.
The Safe Skies Act is reintroduced in the U.S. House and Senate to eliminate the cargo carveout.
Canada’s new FT/DT rules go into effect for large operators.
Canada’s new FT/DT rules go into effect for smaller operators.