A proposed rule that would require airline pilots to take a nine hour break between shifts, and 30 consecutive hours away from flight duty each week, is evoking widespread concern within the airline industry.
Representatives from several major airlines contend that the rule would create a severe pilot shortage and force them to recruit several hundreds more pilots at an enormous cost to their operations and to the industry in general.
The proposed rule stems from a bill called the ‘Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Act’ (H.R. 5900) that was passed by Congress last July and signed into law by President Barack Obama in August 2010. The bill is designed to enhance aviation safety by requiring airlines to ensure that pilots and other cockpit crew members are adequately rested before they start a shift.
In addition, the bill also requires airlines to only hire pilots who have a minimum of 1500 hours of flight time. The statute also mandates more comprehensive background checks and stricter flight training regimens for pilots and other cockpit crew members. Under H.R. 5900, airlines have until August 2013 to ensure that their pilots and co-pilots have an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate with at least 1500 hours of total flight time.
Airlines such as Southwest and American Airlines have complained that the rules sets standards that most airlines would be hard pressed to meet. They have argued that the requirements would cause pilot shortages because there wouldn’t be enough pilots that are qualified under the new standards.
Several have argued that the rule would force them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on salaries, flight training and other expenses. American Airlines for instance, has suggested that the rules would significantly decrease the amount of hours its pilots could fly, thereby forcing it to hire an additional 2300 pilots. Such an undertaking would cost the company an additional $500 million in expenses annually, American Airlines has claimed. Southwest too has publicly proclaimed similar concerns with regard to the proposed regulations and has argued that the rules would result in a massive pilot shortage across the industry.
The bill was passed in the wake of the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York. The crash killed 50 people, including two pilots, two flight attendants and one off-duty pilot. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later attributed the cause of the crash to pilot error most likely stemming from fatigue. The NTSB determined that neither the pilot nor the co-pilot had adequate rest before starting their shift.
H.R 5900 requires the Federal Aviation Administration to develop rules to meet the intent behind the law. The FAA began work on developing the rules last August. It released an initial set of proposed rules last year and received public comments on it through November 30, 2010. The FAA is expected to complete review of the comments and issue its final rules sometime in the first quarter of 2011.