Pilot Fatigue Still Large Threat To Aviation Safety

Pilots are working longer hours as airlines seek more productivity.


Airline pilots remember American Airlines Flight 1420. It crashed in 1999 after overrunning a Little Rock, Ark., runway, killing 10 people and the pilot, Richard W. Buschmann, 48. More than 100 people were injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash and blamed the accident on the crew's 14-hour workday and the stress of trying to land in severe weather. Pilot fatigue has been an issue in the airline industry for years. Pilots and leaders of the 62,000-member Air Line Pilots Association union are bringing the issue back to the forefront now, saying that pilots are working longer hours as airlines seek more productivity.

The union is focusing on "forcing (airlines) to live up to the agreements they have signed," improving work hours and schedules, and pressuring Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration to put "more appropriate" regulations in place, ALPA president Duane Woerth wrote last year in the union's journal.

"Bone-crushing pilot fatigue, and the mental errors it leads to, is still one of the largest threats to aviation safety," Woerth wrote.

Over the past six years, labor contracts at larger airlines have moved toward increasing the cap on pilot flight hours from 70 to 75 hours a month to as many as 95, according to ALPA. Pilots are typically away from home much longer than that because of commuting, flight preparation and layovers.

The FAA regulates how long domestic airline pilots can work. They cannot be scheduled to fly more than 1,000 hours per year, 100 hours per month, 30 hours per week or eight hours between rest periods. There are exceptions, such as some weather delays.

"We feel that the rules on pilot flight time and rest are fundamentally sound and serve the public well," said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. "Over the years the pilots have had to make a lot of concessions because of the financial issues facing the industry, but as far as safety goes, we're confident that they're working within the FAA's rules."

United Airlines, the largest carrier at Denver International Airport, said safety is a top priority and that it works with ALPA to review pilot schedules.

JetBlue, whose pilots are not unionized and not members of ALPA, "takes very seriously the issue of alertness management," said spokeswoman Jenny Dervin. "We are just as concerned about pilot fatigue and managing pilot schedules so that it is not an issue."

JetBlue is paying for a study by Mark Rosekind of scientific consulting firm Alertness Solutions. Dervin said JetBlue wants to better understand how crew members' schedules interfere with their circadian rhythm. Rosekind will publish his results in a scientific journal, JetBlue said.

Pilots aren't the only airline employees who are losing sleep over the issue. The Association of Flight Attendants held a "sleep-in" at the FAA's headquarters last week in Washington. The group called for release of a study mandated by Congress on flight-attendant fatigue. They say fatigue jeopardizes their ability to fulfill safety and security rules.

Pilots union has organized a fatigue committee and expects to publish results of member polls in its journal in coming weeks.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines said that since the Little Rock accident, airlines are better managing fatigue.

In some cases, where a crew has been on duty for a long time and is headed for another flight with bad weather, the crew will be replaced, said Chris Collins, Frontier's senior vice president of operations.

Fatigue is the No. 1 issue for pilots, said Donald Hudson, an Aurora-based doctor specializing in the psychological health of airline pilots. He serves as the aeromedical adviser to ALPA.

Hudson, who is both a pilot and a doctor, said he jokes with his doctor friends, "We can only kill them one at a time, but (pilots) can kill them 300 at a time."

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