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FAA's new pilot-fatigue rules reflect concerns of IU expert-led panel

December 31, 2011

A new federal rule to combat fatigue among airline pilots adopts some of the recommendations of a panel led by an Indiana University professor.

Clinton Oster Jr. and other participants in a National Research Council study recommended last July that airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration gather more information on pilots’ commutes.

Oster also advocated that airlines and the FAA work with pilots to lower the likelihood that fatigue from commuting would be a safety risk.

On Dec. 21, the FAA issued a final rule addressing fatigue among passenger-airline pilots. The agency said it expected pilots and airlines to take joint responsibility for considering whether a pilot is fit for duty—including fatigue resulting from pre-duty activities such as commuting.

Under the new FAA rule, “if a pilot reports he or she is fatigued and unfit for duty, the airline must remove that pilot from duty immediately,” the agency said last month.

Oster, an aviation expert at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, could not be reached for comment. He chaired the 10-person committee that included psychologists and researchers at universities, NASA and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

In 2010, Congress requested the study on the effects of commuting on pilot fatigue. It also directed the FAA to update its regulations based on newer research into sleep and fatigue.

Concerns about how commuting might contribute to fatigue came to a head in 2009, after the crash of a Colgan Air/Continental Connection flight in Buffalo that killed all 49 on board.

Investigators concluded that the captain responded inappropriately to a warning that the plane was slowing before landing due to wing ice, thus putting the plane into a stall. Although crew fatigue was not formally listed as a contributing factor, the investigation revealed that the first officer had a grueling commuting pattern.

The first officer lived near Seattle and caught a jump seat aboard a FedEx cargo plane to Memphis. From there, she caught another cargo flight to a Colgan base at Newark and planned to sleep on a sofa of a crew lounge there before reporting to duty and co-piloting the Buffalo flight.

Oster’s panel cautioned that long commuting distances don’t necessarily translate to dangerous levels of fatigue. A pilot might arrive in time to get enough sleep at local accommodations before reporting to duty.

But it recommended more study—and cited nine accidents with fatigue as a probable cause or contributing factor, including one involving Shuttle America, a regional carrier owned by Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings.

In February 2007, a Shuttle America ERJ-170 jet, operating as a Delta Connection flight, overran the runway at Cleveland Hopkins International while landing. Three of the 71 passengers received minor injuries after the airplane plowed through an airport perimeter fence.

The captain of the plane started his day by commuting on a flight from Louisville to Atlanta. The captain told investigators he’d had only about an hour of sleep the night before.

Oster’s panel, citing investigators’ records, said the pilot didn’t cancel the trip because he thought he might be fired by Shuttle America. A month before the crash, Shuttle America’s assistant chief pilot told him that his attendance had reached unacceptable level.

Among the probable causes the National Transportation Safety Board issued for the Shuttle America crash was the regional carrier’s “failure to administer an attendance policy that permitted flight crew members to call in as fatigued without fear of reprisals.”

The Teamsters union, which represents flight crews of Republic’s regional airlines, including Shuttle America, has complained in recent years that Republic has an attendance policy that “ignores mitigating factors as to why a pilot would notify his or her employer of fatigue.”

Republic officials could not be reached for comment.

Following the crash of the Colgan flight in 2009, a number of disconcerting stories surfaced about the life of the regional airline pilot. The New York Times documented how a pilot for Republic drove six hours from his home in Iowa to his operating base in Indianapolis.•

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