Job Safety

June 12, 2007

FAA on Prescriptive Regulation

In testimony on 6 June 2007, before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Aviation, FAA Deputy Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Peggy Gilligan responded to concerns voiced the day before by Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, about the FAA’s response to the Board’s urgent safety recommendations.

Her excellent comments on the fatigue issue are quoted here:

Flight and Duty time rules have been in existence since the 1950s, and the 121 domestic and 135 scheduled rules were updated in 1985. The rules on pilot flight time and rest have evolved along with advances in commercial air travel. The FAA is confident that, overall, the airline industry complies with the FAA’s current rules. In the intervening time, much research has been done on fatigue, which has resulted in a better understanding of complex fatigue-related issues. The research tells us that this issue does not easily lend itself to a set of prescriptive rules. While the existing prescriptive rules have served us well, they do not allow for the flexibility needed to address the various flight regimes that exist.

Understanding the limits of a strictly prescriptive regulatory regime, we worked to alleviate fatigue through other means. Fatigue countermeasures were first developed by NASA, and include providing in-flight rest, as well as training crew members on the use of proper diet, exercising, and even caffeine to manage fatigue. Fatigue countermeasures are covered during Crew Resource Management (CRM) initial training and during CRM recurrent training.

It is also critical to understand the role that personal responsibility plays in fatigue and why prescriptive rules can only provide a framework for safety. Crew members, mechanics, air traffic controllers, everyone involved in the safety of flight must make a personal commitment to report for work well rested and ready to perform their duties. No regulatory scheme can instill that sense of personal commitment and professionalism.

One thing we know, aviation operations will always challenge us in the area of flight time and rest. Aircraft design allows for longer and longer flight times. Recently, FAA issued approval to Delta Airlines for flights in excess of 16 hours from New York JFK to Mumbai, India. This approval was our first implementation of a fatigue risk management approach. Delta proposed – and we analyzed and approved – a detailed plan to assure the crew is rested before the flight begins, is provided appropriate rest throughout the flight, and have sufficient rest before conducting the return flight.

The procedure specifically addresses the impact to circadian rhythm, including the recognized affect of circadian law which occurs at specific times in the daily cycle. This is an example of where we need to move in the future — away from prescriptive rules and into fatigue risk management.