Panel presses FAA on pilot fatigue rules

Agency official calls process of updating regulations "a difficult and complicated effort."

The Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday stepped up pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to finish work on the long-awaited modernization of the agency's 40-year-old standards on airline pilot fatigue.

"You know we are just about out of patience here," said Senate Commerce Aviation Operations Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., after Peggy Gilligan, the FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, confirmed the agency will miss a January deadline for issuing a draft rule.

"This effort is a difficult and complicated effort," she said. "It is taking longer than expected." Gilligan said the FAA intended to complete an analysis for the rule by the end of January and submit it for review up the chain of command at the FAA as well as at the Transportation Department and Office of Management and Budget.

"I know it is complicated but it's not like sending a person to the moon," said Dorgan, noting that two attempts to update the fatigue standards fizzled during the 1990s.

He warned that he intended to continue pressing the FAA for action on the rewrite. "I have not meant to hector you today, but I do intend to do so in the future," Dorgan said. Expressing a similar sense of urgency were Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt is due to appear before the subcommittee this month.

Dorgan also clashed with Gilligan over her revelation that the new rule would not address the issue of pilots commuting long distances for flight assignments. Although the government could mandate preflight rest periods, "There will always be a responsibility of pilots to manage [them] appropriately," she said.

As an example of the stakes, Dorgan noted that both of the pilots in the cockpit of the Colgan Air plane that crashed with 50 aboard near Buffalo, N.Y., in February had traveled long distances the day before to pick up the flight in Newark, N.J. The pilot was from Tampa, Fla. and the copilot from Seattle, Wash. "It appears that neither of them had a night's sleep," Dorgan said.

Taking Gilligan's side on the matter at the hearing were Air Line Pilots Association President John Prater and Basil Barimo, the vice president for operations and safety of the Air Transport Association. Both insisted that long-distance commuting had become a necessity in the airline industry.

"It's no different than flying from St. Louis to D.C. to start work here," said Prater.

Another witness, Flight Safety Foundation President William Voss, had a different view. "Clearly, commuting sets up a situation where things can go wrong," Voss said. But he added that the problem would be hard to solve in a regulatory framework.