Air Line Pilot, August 2001

President's Forum: The Sky is Falling

Duane Woerth, ALPA PresidentOr at least that’s what U.S. airline management would have you believe if we obtain from the FAA an appropriate limit on the maximum number of hours the carriers can require airline pilots to work during a given day. I’m appalled at the airlines’ latest efforts to block what should be a vital safety rule—a rule that is backed by scientific research and common sense. The airlines have even tried to camouflage their actions in the name of safety, but we know that their primary motivation is money.

A rule to limit an airline pilot’s maximum actual duty day to 16 hours was placed "on the books" in 1985, but airline management apparently chose to ignore it. A study conducted several years ago said that pilot performance was seriously impaired with 16 hours of duty and compared that fatigued performance to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent.

We have been working with the FAA and the airlines to achieve a consensus for a 12-hour maximum scheduled workday. The airlines never openly opposed the rule reform, but quietly threw every possible stumbling block into our way. Arguing that a 12-hour limit that could be extended for up to 14 hours for mechanical, ATC, or weather delays would destroy the airline industry, the Air Transport Association sent a letter to the FAA saying a 14-hour limit was more reasonable. However, this proposal had no limit on the extension of the duty day for unexpected delays, which means that airline pilots could be required to complete their schedule no matter how long it took.

Fed up with the airlines’ stalling tactics, the FAA declared that it would enforce its 1985 rule. The ATA and the Regional Airline Association, unsatisfied with a rule that could allow management to ask pilots to work twice the normal workday, quickly filed a lawsuit to overturn the rule. Additionally, the ATA and the RAA on June 12 requested that the FAA defer enforcement of the rule, saying that such enforcement would cause massive delays and cancelled flights. ALPA strongly opposed the request. The FAA denied the petition on July 10.

The two airline associations have now filed suit to block enforcement, saying that the original 16-hour day limit was illegal. We have intervened in both suits to support the FAA and the rule.

A pilot who has been on duty for 16 hours has certainly been awake for 17 hours, may have traversed 2 or 3 time zones, and may have had the opportunity to sleep for only 4 or 5 hours before reporting to work.

We believe that a reasonable duty limit has one standard for flight and duty limits and rest requirements for all airline pilots. We want to continue the current 8-hour flight-time limit, to reduce the scheduled duty time to 12 hours with extension to a maximum 14 hours for unforeseen delays, to further restrict duty time for midnight-to-dawn flights, and to give pilots a minimum 10-hour rest period between duty periods to allow for an actual 8-hour sleep opportunity.

We should remember that, when the FAA announced it was going to enforce the reserve rest rule effective in December 1999, the ATA and the RAA also predicted that the sky would fall. They were wrong then and are wrong now.

s/Duane E. Woerth