FAA Warns JetBlue after Fatigue Test

JetBlue Airways Corp. has been reprimanded by the Federal Aviation Administration for allowing pilots to fly more hours than regulations permit in an attempt to study pilot fatigue without permission from high-level FAA officials, the company said yesterday.

The Forest Hills-based airline, one of the nation's leading low-cost carriers, had 29 pilots fly as many as 11 hours a day on more than 50 flights in May 2005 to study alertness, said JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. FAA regulations allow pilots to fly no more than eight hours a day.

Passengers were unaware the pilots had been flying longer than regulations allow.

Motion detectors were attached to pilots' wrists. They also used hand-held devices that issued prompts and recorded response speed. A third pilot was always aboard in case of problems, JetBlue said, adding that none came up.

Dervin acknowledged that JetBlue undertook the study without permission from high-level officials at FAA headquarters in Washington. The airline had only the approval of officials at the regional office at Kennedy Airport in Queens.

Dervin said there was a "miscommunication" with the FAA. "We believed it was appropriate to get the permission of the local FAA," she said. "We have since discovered it should have gone to headquarters."

The FAA verbally reprimanded the airline, issuing it "a letter of correction," Dervin said. The FAA did not issue any fines or take any other action.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said she had not heard of other carriers conducting similar studies.

All major airlines are looking to cut costs, and expanding the FAA's eight-hour rule may help in that regard, some industry analysts said. Dervin, however, said JetBlue had only "data collection" in mind. "We wanted to find out what the data tells us," Dervin said. "If it tells us pilots should fly only six hours a day, we would listen to the data." JetBlue is having a consultant analyze the data.

Pete Janhunen, a spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association, which represents pilots at most major airlines, said that while pilot fatigue is an important issue, "there are other ways to look at this. ... We would not recommend any of our members to participate in a single experiment at a single carrier." JetBlue's pilots are non-union.

Robert W. Mann, an independent airline consultant and analyst in Port Washington, however, said the local FAA office at Kennedy should have alerted JetBlue that permission from a higher level at the agency was needed.

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