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Prompt action needed to deter pilot fatigue


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POSTED: Thursday, September 03, 2009

Federal rules limiting how long an airline pilot may fly before resting have not changed in a half-century. Last year's overflight of the Big Island while the pilots slept is among the incidents that finally have prompted action to deal with pilot fatigue. Congress should follow through on an effort to assure alert pilots at the controls.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a report a month ago concluding that fatigue was responsible for two pilots for the Mesa Air Group's go! airline being asleep on Feb. 13, 2008, while flying 26 miles past their destination of Hilo with the autopilot on.

Air traffic controllers finally were able to wake them and the plane was turned around and landed safely. The captain had an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea, and both pilots had started duty at 5:40 a.m. for three consecutive days. Neither pilot now works for the airline.

Fatigue also was blamed for the crash in October 2004 of a Corporate Airlines twin-engine turboprop in Ohio, killing the pilots and 11 passengers. The captain and first officer had been on duty more than 14 hours and were on their sixth flight of the day.

Pilot fatigue has been among the NTSB's “;most wanted safety fixes”; since 1990. The Federal Aviation Administration now allows pilots to be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty and up to eight hours of flight time in a day, with at least eight hours off between flights.

Present rules also prohibit pilots from steering back-to-back flights coast to coast, although Bill Voss, president of the Flight Foundation think tank, says a pilot could be less tired flying from Los Angeles to New York and back in one day than making a long flight after only a few hours sleep. Other countries allow pilots to take turns napping during long flights, a policy supported by NASA research.

Airlines have pointed out that their policies are stricter than the Federal Aviation Administration's guidelines. When the FAA addressed the issue in the mid-1990s, pilot unions resisted concessions proposed by airlines in return for reduced flying hours.

An advisory committee comprised of airline and pilot union officials delivered recommendations to the FAA this week but did not make them public. Participants indicated they would pertain to labor, passenger airlines and cargo carriers. The FAA is expected to take months before submitting a formal proposal to Congress. Given the life-or-death ramifications, prompt improvements are urged for the flying public's safety.

A House committee already has approved a pilot-fatigue bill that would require airlines to employ fatigue risk management systems comprised of scheduling programs that alert the airline to potential fatigue problems.