Current U.S. rules for how many hours pilots can be scheduled to work were written in an age of propeller-driven planes. Officials back then defined a reasonable work day for a pilot without a scientific understanding of fatigue and well before the modern airline industry.
Finding ways to prevent pilot fatigue has stymied federal regulators and the airline industry for decades. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending since 1990 that rules on how many hours pilots can be scheduled to work be updated to reflect modern research and take into account early starting times and frequent takeoffs and landings.
On Tuesday, a committee made up of airline officials and union leaders is expected to deliver recommendations for updating the regulations. Although Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt has promised to vet those recommendations swiftly and turn them into a formal proposal by the FAA, the process will at a minimum take months to complete.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said she does not expect the suggestions to be offered Tuesday to address all the issues that are part of the fatigue problem, but she hopes they will supply a foundation. "You have to build all the rest of the house around it," she said.
Some members of Congress, though, don't trust the FAA to finally come to grips with the problem. Besides forcing the agency's hand, a bill proposed by lawmakers would require airlines to use fatigue risk management systems - complex scheduling programs that alert the company to potential fatigue problems.
After the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the bill earlier this month, Chairman James Oberstar ran through a list of the airline crashes in recent decades.
"The common thread running through all of it is fatigue," said Oberstar. "We have many experiences of the flight crew, the cabin crew, who in cases of emergency were just so numb they couldn't respond instantly to a tragedy at hand."
Linda Zimmerman, a retired Ohio teacher whose sister died in a 2004 regional airline crash in Kirksville, Missouri, said the government's slow response saddens her.
"So many people have died and they haven't done anything about it," Zimmerman said.
Corporate Airlines Flight 5966 was preparing to land on Oct. 19, 2004, when . The pilots and 11 passengers were killed. Two injured passengers survived by jumping from the plane moments before it was engulfed in flames.
The NTSB said the pilots failed to notice that their plane had descended too quickly because they failed to follow procedures and engaged in unprofessional cockpit banter. But the board also said the captain and first officer probably were exhausted - they were completing their sixth flight of the day, had been on duty more than 14 hours and had flown three trips the day before.
NTSB Final Report, Corporate Airlines Flight 5966
Studies show exhaustion can impair a flier's judgment in much the same way alcohol does. It's not uncommon for overtired pilots to focus on a conversation or a single chore and miss other things going on around them, including critical flight information. In a few cases, they've just fallen asleep.
Last year, , as their plane continued to cruise past its destination and out to sea. Air traffic controllers were finally able to raise the pilots, who turned around the plane with its 40 passengers and landed it safely. The airline is a Mesa Airlines subsidiary.
NTSB said that even though the pilots had not been working long that day, they were clearly fatigued. They cited the pilots' work schedules - the day of the incident was the third consecutive day that both pilots started duty at 5:40 a.m. - and said the captain had an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.
FAA rules on how many hours an airline pilot may fly or be on duty before he must rest have been virtually unchanged for nearly a half-century, mainly because if airlines have to allow their crews more rest, they would have to hire more crews.
An FAA effort to tackle the issue in the mid-1990s foundered because airlines wanted concessions from pilots in return for reducing flying hours, and the pilots unions wouldn't go along. The agency proposed a new rule, but it has languished for years without final action.
NTSB's investigation of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 on Feb. 12 near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50, has spotlighted the long hours, low pay and long-distance commutes of regional airline pilots.
It's not clear where the captain of Flight 3407 slept the night before the crash, but it appears he may have tried to nap in a busy airport crew room where his company - regional carrier Colgan Air Inc. of Manassas, Virginia, which operated the flight for Continental - kept bright lights on continuously to discourage extended sleeping. The first officer commuted overnight from her home near Seattle to Newark, New Jersey, to make the flight to Buffalo.
NTSB Investigation, Continental Connection Flight 3407
Current rules say pilots can be scheduled for up to 16 hours on duty and up to eight hours of actual flight time in a day, with a minimum of eight hours off in between. They don't take into account that it is probably more tiring for regional airline pilots to fly five or six short legs in seven hours than it is for a pilot with a major airline to fly eight hours across the Atlantic to Europe with only one takeoff and landing.
One way to compensate would be a "controlled napping" policy, based on NASA research more than two decades ago. It found that pilots were more alert and performed better during landings when they were allowed to take turns napping during the cruise phase of flights. Other countries have adopted the policies, but the FAA has not.
According to Curtis Graeber, who ran NASA's fatigue research program for 10 years, some high-level officials worried that controlled napping would become the butt of jokes by late-night comedians.
For more info:
NTSB Safety Recommendation - Screening for Sleep Disorders During Pilot Medical Certification; Research on Fatigue in Short-Haul Flight Operations (8/07/09)
Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009, H.R. 3371
By Associated Press Writer Joan Lowy