Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., offered an amendment to a bill that would authorize Federal Aviation Administration programs for the next two years. The amendment would prohibit the FAA from including nonscheduled airlines in new rules the agency is drafting on how many hours airlines can schedule pilots to be on duty and how much time they must be allowed for rest between work days.
Nonscheduled airlines like Evergreen International Airlines, Atlas Air Worldwide and World Airways fly 95 percent of U.S. troops and 40 percent of U.S. military cargo around the world, according to the National Air Carrier Association, an industry trade group.
The airlines say the unpredictable nature of their business means their pilots sometimes have to fly longer hours. However, FAA officials working on the new rules refused to create separate rules for nonscheduled airlines. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has said troops are as deserving of well-rested pilots as other airline passengers.
Fatigue has been cited as a factor in some air crashes. Sleep experts have told safety officials that fatigue has affects similar to alcohol, slowing pilots' response times and eroding their judgment.
Oakley Brooks, president of the carrier association, said nonscheduled airlines compensate for pilots' long duty days by giving them more time off between flights. He said nonscheduled airline pilots typically fly about 50 hours a month compared to about 75 hours a month for other airline pilots
Unable to persuade the FAA, industry has turned its attention to Congress.
"It is extremely important that we maintain separate yet safe flight and duty time rules for supplemental carriers," Inhofe said. "One size should not fit all, because supplemental airlines must continue to have the flexibility allowed under current rules to respond to customer demands. This includes both commercial and military."
The amendment would keep current rules for nonscheduled airlines in place. FAA could still draft separate rules for nonscheduled airlines, but it would have to start the arduous rulemaking process from the beginning.
Pilot unions oppose Inhofe's amendment. They say nonscheduled airline pilots get tired the same as other pilots.
"The fatigue issue at the nonskeds is dramatically worse than at the scheduled airlines under the current rules," said Joe Muckle, president of Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224, which represents about 2,800 nonscheduled airline pilots. For example, it's not unusual for pilots to fly to Europe and then to the Middle East and then back to Europe all in one duty period, he said.