published Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

New rules promote air safety

Airline passengers shouldn't have to worry whether or not the pilots up front are awake and alert or so fatigued that their ability to safely fly the aircraft is compromised. Sadly, the flying public has learned that fatigue in the cockpit is not only a possibility but sometimes a reality in U.S. skies. Pilot fatigue is widely believed to play a role in many near-misses and mishaps, including a regional airliner crash that took 50 lives in New York three years ago. Regulations unveiled Wednesday directly address the problem in a positive manner.

The rules, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration, limit the maximum number of hours a pilot can be on duty and increase the number of hours of rest required between duty periods. The rules are sound, but not as all-encompassing as they could be.

First, the rules do not go into effect immediately. Carriers have two years to adopt them. That's too long. Airlines can't change the way work schedules are set up overnight, but they should be able to implement the new work rules within a year or less with a minimum of fuss.

Secondly, cargo carriers -- think Federal Express, United Parcel Service, etc. -- are exempt from the new rules. That's dangerous. Cargo carriers do most of their flying after dark and before sunrise, the time when humans hanker for sleep. It's true that cargo carriers do not put passengers at risk, but the nation would be better served if rules governing fatigue were applied equally to all commercial pilots, regardless of their line of work.

Implementation of the new rules does not come without controversy. Airlines -- commercial and cargo -- have opposed them on the grounds of cost. It is true that shortening the hours pilots can fly likely will increase labor costs. Still, those added costs -- an estimated $297 million over the next decade -- are reasonable given the safety benefits attached to them.

The problem of fatigue, in recent years, has been most notable among pilots for regional air carriers like those serving Chattanooga. Those pilots earn far less than their colleagues who fly the big jets, and their schedules call for more takeoffs and landings in the course of a day's work that can take them from one end of the country to the other. Many regional pilots, because of finances and schedules, often catch naps in airport lounges rather than get a full night's sleep. The new rules should help end that practice.

The FAA rules, once fully effective and enforced, should help reduce pilot fatigue -- and passenger worry that their safety is perhaps compromised by someone whose skill and judgment might be impaired by overwork and the lack of sleep.

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