Post Part 117 implementation, should there be Wake Up Call for Airline Pilot Fatigue?

airline pilot fatigue
Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Airline Pilot Fatigue

How well is Part 117 being implemented?

After careful consideration of state-of-the-art science, strong advocacy by labor and management and a protracted ARC review, the DoT/FAA [Secretary LaHood and Acting Administrator Huerta] announced on December 21, 2011, “a sweeping final rule that overhauls commercial passenger airline pilot scheduling to ensure pilots have a longer opportunity for rest before they enter the cockpit.” The press release included quotes from both, but Huerta’s comment was most telling:

Every pilot has a personal responsibility to arrive at work fit for duty. This new rule gives pilots enough time to get the rest they really need to safely get passengers to their destinations.”

faa dot fatigue in aviation

The general outline of the new 14 CFR Part 117 is as follows:

  • “Varying flight and duty requirements based on what time the pilot’s day begins. The new rule incorporates the latest fatigue science to set different requirements for pilot flight time, duty period and rest based on the time of day pilots begin their first flight, the number of scheduled flight segments and the number of time zones they cross.
  • Flight duty period. The allowable length of a flight duty period depends on when the pilot’s day begins and the number of flight segments he or she is expected to fly, and ranges from 9-14 hours for single crew operations. The flight duty period begins when a flightcrew member is required to report for duty, with the intention of conducting a flight and ends when the aircraft is parked after the last flight. It includes the period of time before a flight or between flights that a pilot is working without an intervening rest period. Flight duty includes deadhead transportation, training in an aircraft or flight simulator, and airport standby or reserve duty if these tasks occur before a flight or between flights without an intervening required rest period.
  • Flight time limits of eight or nine hours. The FAA limits flight time – when the plane is moving under its own power before, during or after flight – to eight or nine hours depending on the start time of the pilot’s entire flight duty period.
  • 10-hour minimum rest period. The rule sets a 10-hour minimum rest period prior to the flight duty period, a two-hour increase over the old rules. The new rule also mandates that a pilot must have an opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep within the 10-hour rest period.
  • New cumulative flight duty and flight time limits. The new rule addresses potential cumulative fatigue by placing weekly and 28-day limits on the amount of time a pilot may be assigned any type of flight duty. The rule also places 28-day and annual limits on actual flight time. It also requires that pilots have at least 30 consecutive hours free from duty on a weekly basis, a 25 percent increase over the old rules.
  • Fitness for duty. The FAA expects pilots and airlines to take joint responsibility when considering if a pilot is fit for duty, including fatigue resulting from pre-duty activities such as commuting. At the beginning of each flight segment, a pilot is required to affirmatively state his or her fitness for duty. If a pilot reports he or she is fatigued and unfit for duty, the airline must remove that pilot from duty immediately.
  • Fatigue Risk Management System. An airline may develop an alternative way of mitigating fatigue based on science and using data that must be validated by the FAA and continuously monitored.”

The FAA issued additional guidance, including a long Advisory Circular, and, as in the past, the Chief Counsel was asked to issue opinions on the intricacies of the new rule. ALPA held numerous sessions for its members to explain the new regime, especially how the Fatigue Risk Management applies to their work.


Despite all that regulatory process, there are still concerns being expressed:

American Airlines’ pilots union filed a labor grievance against the carrier, alleging that American has ignored rules to keep tired pilots from flying.

In a letter sent by Allied Pilots Association president Dan Carey, he says the carrier has violated the fatigue risk management system processes and has failed to provide safe flight operations by reducing fatigue in the airline’s operations.

“These violations are ongoing, relate directly to safety and pose a risk of massive, imminent, and irreparable harm and/or death of employees, passengers, and on-the-ground personnel,” Carey wrote in the grievance letter.

Carey says the carrier should “cease and desist” the practice of crew schedules who threaten or give missed assignments designations to pilots who say they are too tired to fly according to federal regulations.

Studies show pilots are bad at judging how fatigued they are. This raises questions about the validity of their claims. Don’t blame pilots just yet though. Humans generally fare badly when questioned about their health. One group of scientists has found that the more tired people get, the less tired they feel.

If pilots are fatigued, the question is why. Night flying, jet lag, and unpredictable shifts – common throughout the airline industry – are partly to blame. But so is commuting – the practice of living in one city and traveling (sometimes by plane) to another for work. A recent survey of European pilots found that more than half of those interviewed commute to work – commutes that lengthen the work day and lead to exhaustion. According to a transportation safety watchdog, the commuting issue is, “one that everyone wants to turn their head away from,” pilots included.

  • EU pilot fatigue rules miss required effect—“the European Cockpit Association (ECA) has issued a statement condemning the complexity of the new EU FTL rules that results in them being ‘widely misinterpreted and incorrectly implemented’. The ECA says that there are different interpretations of the rules, a lack of official guidance on correct implementation, immature fatigue risk management systems in the airlines and persistent fatigue problems.”
  • Fit to fly?, from, this article examines the issue from a Canadian perspective. That country’s regulatory development is somewhat behind the US’s and Europe’s. The Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) is considering new approaches to the issue; for example:

“’Only in circumstances where a serious threat is perceived does Transport Canada communicate with the carriers,’ said ATAC president John McKenna. ‘We would prefer that an automatic notice be sent to the employer when a pilot, or an air traffic controller, loses their privilege to fly (or work in air traffic) due to a failed medical test (or psychological test if such a thing existed in Canada). ‘We even suggested that Transport Canada inform the employer without revealing the reason for the loss of flying (or controlling) privileges, hoping to remain compliant with the right to privacy of an individual,” continued McKenna. “This was on our list of issues when we met with the Minister in May. He seemed in agreement with the need to find a solution quickly.”

“Transport Canada’s Gauthier said the regulator is working closely with the medical community to ensure aircrew and air traffic controllers are medically fit, to close gaps in scientific knowledge of Canadian aviation medicine, to promote health and safety in the field of aviation, and to prevent aircraft accidents due to medically-related human factors.”

“’Departmental officials are reviewing the French Civil Aviation Safety Investigation Authority’s recommendations and report into last year’s Germanwings accident,’ she noted. ‘We are conducting further assessments and building on the work accomplished at the international level before proposing regulatory amendments. Transport Canada continues to work with our counterparts to ensure a collective approach is taken to avoid future accidents.’”

It is important to acknowledge that only one of these articles cites problems in the US.

These are not “the sky is falling” reports; so, there is no call to reopen Part 117. However, having battled through the conflicts surrounding pilot fatigue, it would be easy for the FAA to relax a bit. Flight, duty and rest are issues which a regulator might regard as decided; the best rules are in place. These articles might serve as a catalyst for a post issuance reviewHOW WELL IS PART 117 BEING IMPLEMENTED?

Perhaps, individual airlines might initiate a Safety Management Review of Pilot Fatigue at their company; questions like:

  • Are there practices/procedures which might reduce this risk HERE?
  • What are the commuting patterns of our crews?
  • Might we create a “dorm” at major hubs to facilitate rest?
  • Should supervisors be aware of “at risk” patterns?
  • Are there non-punitive measures which can be implemented to move pilots who are fatigued out of a schedules flight?
  • Are there biometric measures which can be utilized to assess the pilot’s fitness for duty?

The SMS experience has shown that solutions designed to respond to a specific airline’s profile are preferable to many universal regulatory fixes. MAYBE HERE, TOO?


Share this article: FacebooktwitterlinkedinFacebooktwitterlinkedin

Leave a comment