Airlines brace for new rules restricting pilot flight time

FAA rules that mandate pilots rest between flights takes effect Saturday, potentially increasing flight delays

A pilot sits in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 at Denver International Airport on Feb. 5, 2011 in Vail, Col.
EyesWideOpen/Getty Images.

New federal regulations governing pilot rest time and consecutive hours of flight took effect Saturday, leading airlines to brace for a potential increase in delays and cancellations, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Pilots must have a minimum of 10 hours to rest between each shift, and eight of those hours must be uninterrupted sleep. Before, pilots could spend that time showering, eating or commuting between the airport and hotel.

Pilots will be limited to flying no more than eight or nine hours, depending on when their shift starts, and each week must have 30 consecutive hours of rest.

Regional pilots, who often have a more demanding schedule and tend to fly shorter segments at odd hours of day and night, have a "sliding-scale" of maximum hours and can be set as low as nine hours a day, a considerable drop from the previous max of 14.

The new rules also mandate for the first time that scheduling must account for when pilots report to work early in the morning or late at night because that type of flying is significantly more fatiguing than flying during the day.

The more than 300 pages of new rules do not apply to cargo pilots, and airlines have had two years to prepare for the change.

The Federal Aviation Administration tried to make similar changes over 20 years ago, but backed off after opposition from pilots and airlines.

The new rules come after a Colgan Air regional plane crash in February 2009 while approaching the airport in Buffalo, N.Y., killing all 49 people aboard and one person on the ground. An investigation into the crash revealed significant pilot fatigue issues, strenuous work schedules and poor pilot training, all thought to have contributed to the crash.

In midst of the aviation industry digging out of a massive snowstorm and with a forecast of more bad weather on the horizon, the changes are likely to have a significant impact.

"Everything we know about planning for and operating in winter storms, de-ice events, spring thunderstorms, summer rolling (air-traffic control delay) programs and hurricane season will change on some level," a memo from Marisa Von Wieding, vice president of systems operations control for JetBlue Airways, wrote in a memo addressed pilots this week, the Journal reported.

The rule change will affect each airline differently. According to the Journal, United will hire an extra 60 to 100 pilots a month to make up for the difference, and others are beefing up their reserve network so they can call in new crews to work if a pilot "times out."

Dave Holtz, Delta’s vice president of operations control, told the Journal he expects the airline to cancel more flights at the end of the day when a crew times out then it does currently, but said there should be "very little noticeable difference." 

Some airlines with a smaller network will have a hard time with the changes. If any of the airlines' pilots time out in an area where they don't have reserve pilots, another plane would have to be flown in with a crew that still has enough flying time to continue the trip.

The FAA has placed some of the responsibility on the pilots as well, encouraging them to take personal responsibility to ensure they get the necessary amount of rest, especially for pilots who fly long distances to report to the airport work.

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