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Commutes unlikely to be addressed in new rules on pilot fatigue

Lawmakers say the long distances flown just for pilots to get to work are contributing to the problem, but the FAA said there is no plan to make policy changes.

December 02, 2009|By Joe Markman

Reporting from Washington — The Federal Aviation Administration will announce new rules on pilot fatigue in January, but they probably will not include restrictions on long-distance commutes that lawmakers said Tuesday are essential to solving the problem.

The crash of a regional Colgan Air flight in Buffalo that killed 50 people in February highlighted the need for federal rules limiting the distance pilots often have to fly to begin their workday, said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who heads the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's aviation panel.

One pilot traveled from Seattle to Newark, N.J., before the Buffalo flight, the other from Tampa, Fla. Both died in the crash.

"You've got people whose work station is on the East Coast, flying from all over the country just to go to work," Dorgan said at a hearing Tuesday. "I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't commute. I am suggesting that if you're going to have this kind of substantial commuting, you better understand that you're going to have some problems."

Ice buildup on the plane and lack of pilot experience also may have been factors in the Buffalo crash. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) called pilot commuting "an issue that deserves immediate concern" and at the hearing urged Margaret Gilligan, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, to consider long-distance commutes a contributing factor to the overall problem of pilot fatigue.

Gilligan said the FAA's rule-making committee, which worked from July to September this year developing recommendations for the agency based on science and international standards, did not recommend any changes to current airline commuting policies. So far, the FAA continues "to see that as a pilot responsibility," Gilligan said, though the administration is "considering additional elements" to the upcoming rules.

The rule-making committee, composed of 18 labor, industry and FAA representatives, delivered its final report to the FAA on Sept. 10.

Joe Williams, a spokesman for Pinnacle Airlines, which owns Colgan Air, said the company respects the right of pilots to live where they choose. "Where would you draw the line?" he asked.

Industry and labor representatives brought up similar points in questioning the government's possible intervention.

"It's a crew member's responsibility to be rested and prepared," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. of America, the nation's largest airline trade group.

Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Assn., the leading pilot union in North America, said in an interview after the hearing that the instability of the regional airline business contributes to pilots suddenly finding themselves with commutes of hundreds of miles because their airline has lost or gained a contract with a larger airline.

Prater, a pilot who lives in southern Illinois, has had to commute as far as Guam, in the western Pacific Ocean, to get to work.

Still, he disagrees that the problem is as bad as lawmakers say, and said he believes businesses and unions should come together to make sure pilots are properly rested and fliers remain safe.

"I have serious doubt that this is an issue for the regulators," Prater said.

joseph.markman@ latimes.com

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