What if There Was a Maintenance Fatigue Rule?

Knowledge of fatigue hazards can become clouded by the necessity of meeting deadlines, fulfilling delivery promises, or pocketing some extra overtime wages.

While the author does not see a U.S. maintenance fatigue rule anytime soon he is always answering the question, what would the rule look like?

My first answer to the question of a maintenance fatigue rule is that “it is not on the immediate horizon.” In June 2009, the FAA chartered the Flight and Duty Time Limitations and Rest Requirements Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). On Sept. 9, 2009, the ARC delivered its final report to the FAA in the form of a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). Associated with a heightened sensitivity to the effects of fatigue on pilots, on Aug. 1, 2010, the President signed Public Law (PL) 111-216, Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, which focused on improving aviation safety.

The official release of the NPRM in the Federal Registry was made on Sept. 14, 2010. Following the resolution of more than 8,000 public and industry comments, the 14 CFR Parts 117, 119, and 121 Flight crew member duty and rest requirements were published on Jan. 4, 2012 with an effective date of Jan. 4, 2014. That is pretty fast by rule making standards. That speed was triggered mostly from a very public accident that publicized the lack of adequate rest by both flight crew members (Colgan, Flight 3407 in February 2009). While the NTSB (AAR-10-01) did not attribute fatigue as a primary or contributory cause of the accident, the topic of fatigue-related hazards among flight crews was addressed in the NTSB final report.

Unlike the contributing factors to the Colgan accident there is seldom sufficient root cause analysis to attribute mechanic fatigue to a serious accident. It is more likely that fatigue-related maintenance error would contribute to costly aircraft ground damage, maintenance rework costing time and money, or unfortunate personnel injury. A recent exception is the Sundance Helicopter accident in December 2011. The NTSB (AAR-13-1) reported that mechanic fatigue was a contributing factor.

The paragraphs above do not tell the entire story about attention to maintenance fatigue. Every mechanic has tales about events that were caused by apparent fatigue. Stories about three or four continuous around-the-clock work days are not uncommon. The stories often involve trips to fix a grounded aircraft or big repairs to engines, landing gears, or aircraft damage situations.

While such stories do not violate current U.S. regulations they sure are triggering workers and their management to ask the important questions. “Why would we work such hours with full knowledge of the hazards to aircraft damage, personal injury, or flight safety? We know better and should not allow ourselves to get into such situations.” However, knowledge of fatigue hazards can become clouded by the necessity of meeting deadlines, fulfilling delivery promises, or pocketing some extra overtime wages.

The FAA has not yet drafted or enacted rules to address the hazards associated with fatigue in maintenance. However, the FAA has made significant strides to help industry to address fatigue. Many of the fatigue-related safety interventions have been reported in Aircraft Maintenance Technology magazine. All of the FAA maintenance fatigue safety interventions can be found at the FAA web site www.mxfatigue.com. (Such interventions include:

  • A two-hour web-based fatigue awareness course;
  • An award-winning 20-minute video (Grounded);
  • A real-time fatigue assessment tool;
  • A process and software to show the value of fatigue interventions; and
  • Multiple plain-language reports and quarterly newsletters about fatigue, and more.

Aviation safety inspectors from the FAA Safety Team; scientists from the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute; and others have spoken at industry forums, delivering practical facts about fatigue in maintenance. FAA leadership with return-on-investment tools has helped to show that there is financial and safety payback in managing maintenance fatigue.

But what would a rule say?

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