Aug 14 8:30 PM

Ex-NTSB chief: FAA should rethink pilot fatigue rules after Ala. crash

NTSB workers inspect the wreckage of a UPS cargo plane that crashed in a field outside of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport on Wednesday morning. The pilot and co-pilot were killed. (credit: NTSB via Getty Images)

Following the fatal crash of a UPS cargo plane Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala., a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman said that federal aviation officials should reconsider rules that set different fatigue standards for cargo flight pilots.

"I hope the FAA will revisit their decision on the 'cargo cutout,'" Jim Hall told America Tonight, warning that other factors could also have been involved in Wednesday’s crash.

Hall, who served as NTSB chair from 1994 to 2001, was referring to rule changes the FAA announced in 2011 that cut the hours that passenger-plane pilots can fly if they're in the cockpit late at night or face multiple takeoffs and landings. Those new rules aren’t set to take effect until 2014 and largely exclude cargo flights since the measures' benefits were focused on limiting potential loss of life.

As Bloomberg reported in December, the estimated net costs in the first dozen years of cutting back the work hours of cargo-plane pilots spiked from $306 million to $550 million, according to the FAA’s revised calculations. The Bloomberg report added that the FAA’s projected benefits for cargo airlines would be somewhere between $20 million to almost $33 million.

The cause of the Birmingham crash, which killed the pilot and the co-pilot, is still under investigation, but no severe weather was reported in the area and preliminary reports say that the pilots didn't radio a distress call to the tower.

The Birmingham crash is the latest layer in the back-and-forth between the FAA and the pilots union that represents UPS over pilot-scheduling rules. In December 2011, FAA officials said that overhauling the rules for cargo-airline pilots would have cost $214 million in a decade, calling it too costly for the industry. In January 2012, the Independent Pilots Association, the union that represents UPS flight crews, had sued the FAA to have the same fatigue-prevention rules apply to cargo carriers as commercial airlines. In the lawsuit, IPA noted that it could not find justification for the FAA’s cost estimate, which was ultimately the basis for granting an overhaul to the rules.

In its January 2012 motion, IPA stated: "These errors are of sufficient amount that the FAA believes that it is prudent to review the portion of its cost-benefit analysis related to all-cargo operations and allow interested parties an opportunity to comment on that analysis."

Hall, now a consultant on crisis management and a managing partner at Hall & Associates LLC in Washington, wants to see a single safety standard for passenger and cargo aircraft. Fatigue remains a major concern for cargo plane crews since so much of their work is done "back of the clock" -- reporting to work in the middle of the night and flying into the wee hours of the morning.

Kevin Hiatt, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation and a former commercial pilot, told America Tonight that cargo pilots have the same training, licenses, and ratings as commercial pilots, which involves many hours in flight simulators. Both UPS and FedEx have also been working with fatigue experts to keep crews alert safe.

Hiatt said he agrees with Hall that "we should all subscribe to one level of safety ... whether flying passengers or cargo," but he'd like to see more research into improving safety in the final moments of flight.

In 118 of the 250 fatal aircraft incidents worldwide that have occurred between 2002 and 2011, the accidents happened during the final approach, landing or aborted landing phases, Hiatt said. Those kinds of instances account for 47 percent of the accidents during that time period. He noted that the last three major U.S. incidents -- the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, the Southwest Airlines plane with a nose gear problem in New York, and Wednesday's crash in Birmingham -- all occurred during this phase.

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