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Pilot-Rest Rules May Force Adjustments by U.S. Regional Airlines

Workers and investigators clear debris from the scene of the plane crash of Continental Flight 3407 on February 16, 2009 in Clarence, New York. The NTSB found that both pilots on the flight hadn’t slept well the previous night. The safety board stopped short of blaming fatigue for the accident.  Photo: David Dupre/Getty Images-Pool
Workers and investigators clear debris from the scene of the plane crash of Continental Flight 3407 on February 16, 2009 in Clarence, New York. The NTSB found that both pilots on the flight hadn’t slept well the previous night. The safety board stopped short of blaming fatigue for the accident. Photo: David Dupre/Getty Images-Pool

Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Revised U.S. pilot-fatigue rules will be toughest on regional airlines that operate about half the nation’s flights, according to a scheduling analyst.

Cost increases from the new rules will be “modest,” 3 percent to 4 percent for most regional carriers, Robert Gerbracht of PIAS Inc., a Fairfax County, Virginia, firm that sells pilot-scheduling software to airlines, said in an interview. Gerbracht helped the Federal Aviation Administration prepare the rules released yesterday.

The potential for higher costs comes as American Eagle, the regional unit of AMR Corp., is reducing flights after Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR’s filing for bankruptcy protection last month and Pinnacle Airlines Corp., according to a note this week from Maxim Group LLC analyst Ray Neidl, is facing a “high probability” of bankruptcy.

“The ink isn’t even dry on this yet and people are predicting the end of an industry,” Roger Cohen, president of the Washington-based Regional Airline Association, said in an interview yesterday. “How credible is that?”

The FAA rules, which take effect in two years, reduce the hours that pilots can work and give them longer rest breaks. They’re the first changes to pilot work rules since 1985. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday called them a “landmark” response to calls for improved aviation safety.

The rules reduce the pilot work day to from 9 to 14 hours, compared with the current 16-hour limit, according to the FAA. Pilots will get at least 10 hours off between shifts to ensure eight uninterrupted hours of sleep, the rule said. The current minimum rest break is as little as 8 hours.

Pilots will also be guaranteed at least one 30-hour period off duty each week, an increase over the 24-hour break, the rule said.

Flight Limits

The rule will force carriers to hire more pilots and reduce service, with the increased costs passed on to fliers in ticket prices, some analysts said.

“In that sector particularly, we will see cuts because it’s also more difficult to hire pilots today,” William Swelbar, a research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview. “There’s an increased minimum of hours you need to get an airline pilot certificate.”

Mainline carriers such as United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. will be able to adapt to the rules more easily than regionals because their labor contracts contain restrictions on pilot hours, Gerbracht said.

Cargo airlines including United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. were exempted from the new rules.

Regional carriers such as Memphis, Tennessee-based Pinnacle and Mesa Air Group Inc., based in Phoenix, operate short-haul flights, which will be most affected by the new rules.

Some See Disruptions

Pilots flying two segments during a day will be allowed to work as much as 14 hours, the rule says. Flight crews making seven or more flights will be restricted to no more than 11 1/2 hours. If those flights occur late at night, they cannot work more than nine hours, according to the rule.

Airline service to some medium-sized cities could be disrupted, Bob McAdoo, an analyst at Avondale Partners in Prairie Village, Kansas, said.

The FAA will require pilots to get at least 10 hours off duty to ensure that they can get eight hours of sleep. Some regional carriers fly into smaller airports at night and use the same crews on the first flight out in the morning, McAdoo said. It may not be possible to operate these flights without bringing in a separate crew for the morning flight, he said.

Costs, Benefits

The FAA rule has provisions to give some flexibility to airlines to minimize schedule disruptions. Airlines can appeal to the FAA to operate flights not normally allowed if they can demonstrate that they are safe, according to the rule.

The rules will cost passenger airlines $297 million over 10 years, the FAA estimated. Savings due to fewer accidents and improved pilot health will be $247 million to $470 million during the same period, the rule said. Airlines won’t need to hire new pilots to comply, according to the FAA.

“It’s going to take the airlines a little bit of time to settle in and really optimize their planning algorithms to make it as efficient as they can,” Bill Voss, president of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation said. “But I’m very confident that they can adjust to this very well.”

The rule is aimed at ending a small subset of airline flights that were most fatiguing, Voss said. The vast majority of flights won’t have to change, he said.

Costs Too High

The costs of imposing new restrictions on cargo carriers, which operate most of their flights at night, was too high, LaHood said in explaining why those airlines aren’t covered by the rules.

The exemption is a “tremendous disappointment,” Lee Collins, executive vice president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, a Washington-based group representing five pilot unions, said in an interview.

“They left out a huge segment of airline pilots,” Collins said. “System safety has not been improved today.”

UPS, which operates a fleet of 216 aircraft and does short-term leases or charters for 300 more, lauded the FAA’s decision, Mike Mangeot, a spokesman for the firm, said.

“One size has never fit all when it comes to crew rest regulations,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at

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