September 10, 2001
ALPA Irate Over Court Stay of Pilot Fatigue Rule
WASHINGTON, D.C.---The head of the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) today lashed out at a court ruling issued last week that would allow pilots to be kept on duty indefinitely, and urged the Federal Aviation Administration to expedite a rule change to stop the practice. He also reissued a call for the FAA to update the existing flight and duty time rules, a process that has been stymied by resistance from airline groups.
"This is incomprehensible and totally unacceptable," said Capt. Duane Woerth, president of ALPA. "Pilots at various carriers are being kept on duty in excess of the FAAís limit of 16 hours, and the airlines are doing everything within their power to keep it that way. Now the airlines have convinced a court to issue a stay on enforcing an interpretation of the existing rule. This, at a minimum, will allow airlines to continue using their interpretation for another six months. I am urging the FAA to set this problem on a fast-track resolution by issuing an expedited rule with a 60-day comment period."
The order was imposed Sept. 5 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The court granted a motion by the Air Transport Association to stay the enforcement of an FAA rule interpretation that prohibits pilots from being on duty more than 16 hours. The court is not expected to rule on the complaint itself until April.
"The airlines tell us, ĎOh, this is just a procedural issue, the FAA didnít dot all the iís and cross all the tís,í but itís clear from their filings and their actions that they want to kill this rule, and failing that, keep it bottled up for as long as possible, just as theyíve kept an overhaul of the fatigue rules bottled up for going on six years now. The airlines speak about wanting safety and tougher limits to prevent pilot fatigue, but then they go and do the exact opposite," Woerth said.
The court order comes a bit more than a month before the Nov. 17 deadline that FAA had set for airlines to get into total compliance with the rule. Even a 16-hour limit is inadequate in ALPAís view, since this allows barely eight hours away from duty, which in most cases provides a pilot with only four to six hours of sleep.
"Let me reiterate what I said back in June, when the airlines first tried to get the FAA to block enforcement of the rule. A 16-hour day is hard enough for anyone, let alone a pilot, who must maintain his mental and physical faculties at top performance levels. A pilot who is on duty 16 hours has been awake at least 17 hours Ė and we know from scientific study that this produces an impairment in performance equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent. It is illegal for pilots to fly with a BAC of 0.04 percent, because that produces what the FAA considers to be an unacceptable impairment to performance, yet the airlines are content Ė no, letís make that adamant Ė that their pilots be allowed to fly under conditions worse than that," Woerth said.
"It is also ridiculous for the airlines to assert that other sections of the FAA regulations already address pilot fatigue by making it illegal for a pilot to fly when he is fatigued. First, fatigue is insidious, so individuals are not reliable in evaluating their own level of alertness; and second, many pilots face severe consequences for telling airline management that they are too tired to continue flying. Airlines obviously donít like to talk about it, but pilot pushing is pervasive in some segments of the airline industry," Woerth said.
The disagreement is not over the existence of the 16-hour limit Ė airlines concede that they cannot schedule a pilot to be on duty more than 16 hours Ė but on what happens when delays or other circumstances would keep the pilot on duty past 16 hours. The airlines contend that so long as they do not schedule past 16 hours, it is legal for the pilot to continue his scheduled series of flights to completion. ALPA, and the FAA, disagree, saying that there should be no extensions for delays.
"Thatís a loophole big enough to drive a B747 through," Woerth said. "Delays due to weather and air traffic control happen all the time. By the airlinesí interpretation, they can keep pilots at work for 18, 20, or even 24 hours, until they bring the airplane to their last scheduled destination."
"We donít know how many accidents have been caused by pilot fatigue, because itís hard to measure the exact state of fatigue and decreased performance after the fact. However, we already have a massive body of evidence from NASA studies to confirm what we as pilots and accident investigators already know: the FAA rules on flight and duty time limits need to be tightened, not loosened, and until that happens, airplanes are going to crash and people will die because of the effects of pilot fatigue," Woerth said.
ALPA, the nationís oldest and largest pilot union, represents 66,000 airline pilots at 47 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. Visit the ALPA Web site at http://cf.alpa.org.
# # #
ALPA CONTACTS: John Mazor, Anya Piazza, (703) 481-4440