Dissecting the New Pilot Rest Rules

Ever since the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, there has been a renewed effort to revamp the pilot rest Pilot Fatiguerules in the US, and now, we’ve finally seen a proposal from the FAA. To the layperson, this 39 page ruling (pdf) looks to be written in a foreign language, and about 5 pages in, you’re crying and rocking in the fetal position. So let’s see if I can break this down and explain exactly what’s being proposed here. Wish me luck. I fully expect a laundry list of comments with corrections from pilots here. (Please do.)

The FAA explains it this way:

Today’s proposal sets forth a matrix that addresses transient fatigue (i.e., the immediate, short-term fatigue that can be addressed by a recuperative rest opportunity) by establishing a 9-hour minimum rest opportunity prior to commencing duty directly associated with the operation of aircraft (flight duty period, or FDP), placing restrictions on
that type of duty, and further placing restrictions on flight time (that period of time when the aircraft is actually in motion—flight time is encompassed by FDP).

Get it? That’s what I thought. But fatigue really is the biggest issue here, and it’s good that it’s finally be addressed. The problem, however, is that no two sides will agree on how to address fatigue, so the FAA had to decide on something. The agency has put out its first proposal and now the comment period is open. There may very well be some changes before this becomes final.

Before we get started, there is one important distinction to be made. There is a difference between flight time and Flight Duty Period (FDP). Flight time is the time when you push back until you get back to the gate on the other side. FDP includes training, flight planning, and anything else involved in the operation of the flight. Transferring from the airport to the hotel doesn’t count, but that’s probably right where the line is drawn.

We’re going to have to make some generalizations here for simplicity’s sake. This proposal also hopes to simplify the rules across different types of operations, something that isn’t the case today. So let’s look at the rules that govern most travel for comparison purposes.

Duty Time Limits
Today, a pilot can fly 8 hours (flight time) in any 24 hour period. The new plan is going to vary based upon the number of flights scheduled during the day as well as the time that the pilot reports for duty. Why? Because it’s generally accepted that flight times that go against the body’s natural rhythm are more likely to cause fatigue, so pilots can’t fly as much while staying alert if they start their “day” in the middle of the night. Also, flying more flights in a day can add to fatigue. Here’s the new proposed chart.

Proposed Flight Duty Period Limits

As you can see, the big metric here is Flight Duty Period (FDP) instead of flight time, though flight time is still limited on the far right side. So now, if you start your day in the morning like most earthbound people would, you can be on duty for up to 13 hours and fly up to 10 hours. This means that some flights that couldn’t be done with two pilots in the past now might be possible if the flight time is between 8 and 10 hours. (This increase is going to be challenged by pilots for sure.) On the other hand, pilots could have been on duty for up to 16 hours in the past. But now, they’re limited to 13 at most.

Rest Requirements
The flip side of this is how much rest is required when not working. The previous rule required 8 hours of rest looking backwards in a 24 hour period. Now, the rule is 9 hours in the hotel. Also, pilots must get 30 consecutive hours off in each week, up from 24 hours today. Many still argue that 9 hours in the hotel isn’t enough, because everyone should get 8 hours of sleep per night and the body can’t be forced to just go to sleep on command.

Ways to Increase Duty Time
So now the idea is to limit flying to 10 hours at max, but that doesn’t really help us on long flights, right? How do you deal with a 15 hour flight from LA to Sydney? It’s called augmentation. If you add a third pilot, then you can fly longer. And if you add a fourth pilot, you can fly even longer. The idea is that the pilots work in shifts, so that when pilots aren’t working, they can get rest in the back. But to get rest, pilots need to have adequate facilities, and that’s been taken into account in the new system for extended duty times. Here’s what that looks like now.

Proposed Augmented Flight Duty Time Allowed

As you can see here, the rules come to a hard stop at 16 hours, but what about flights that are longer? There are special procedures that an airline can use through the FAA to get special exemptions created with specific plans for those rare ultra-long flights.

There is also another way to get more time from a pilot. It’s called split duty. That’s when a pilot is on duty, gets a break in the middle, and then flies more at the end. If there are adequate rest facilties (eg hotel room) and there’s enough time, then that can be used as a scheduling tool.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, some fun-filled exceptions have been created to give some flexibility. For example, once a week, a crew can have a 2 hour extension of duty time (3 if there are 3 or more pilots) in order to deal with issues beyond the control of the airline. So they’re addressing summer thunderstorms and long delays, right? Nope.

Carriers should anticipate thunderstorms in many parts of the United States during the summer months. Likewise, heavy snow in the northern parts of the country should be anticipated during the winter, and the jet stream follows basic seasonal patterns. By the same token, carriers are not responsible for traffic delays; however, if they are operating out of chronically delayed airports, air traffic delays are clearly foreseeable.

Well that’s crap. I mean, yes, snow and storms happen during the summer, but they don’t happen every hour of every day. So why should airlines schedule so conservatively? They shouldn’t, but that doesn’t fly with the FAA proposal.

There is a lot more in here including a whole slew of discussion about pilots that are on reserve, or standing by to be used if necessary without having a flight scheduled in advance. There is also, finally, going to be 5 hours of initial and 2 hours of annual recurrent training on fatigue and how it effects pilots. There is none required today, so this is great.

In the end, this rule is probably not going to have a huge effect on the big guys because they already are closer to these new rules thanks to union contracts. Still, there will be pieces that the pilots or the airlines won’t like. It will probably have the biggest impact on some of the regional airlines out there with less strict rules. But that’s a good thing.

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17 Comments on "Dissecting the New Pilot Rest Rules"

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David SF eastbay

Cranky I can tell you did a lot of work on this blog, but I have to admit you lost me after the first chart. So I’ll just say I hope it makes everything better as no one does well at a job if they are tired, and that includes someone sitting at a desk looking at a computer screen all day.

Long Time Vet

Wow, I am impressed. You nicely comprehended a very complex and controversial issue. As you further digest the many pages in the NPRM, read the preamble to better understand the labor driven agenda that will have negative unintended consequences without improving safety one iota. Not good.


Uh, I give up. I skimmed the preamble (emphasis on skimmed). Can you point directly to the part that implies that this is a labor driven agenda that will have negative unintended consequences without improving safety one iota?

“The previous rule required 8 hours of rest looking backwards in a 24 hour period. Now, the rule is 9 hours in the hotel.” Cranky, I haven’t read the fine print, but if the context of your statement is accurate, then this in and of itself is a very welcome change for the pilots. The way it works now, your van ride to/from the hotel is actually considered part of your rest period. Waiting for the van + van ride + checking in + waiting for the van back + van ride back = a good chunk of your 8… Read more »

Cranky, how about giving your view on commuting, which wasn’t addressed but is still coming up when discussing these proposed rules?

I’m not Cranky, but in my view, it’s a necessary evil. “Crew domiciles” (which aren’t necessarily airline hubs) open and close regularly. Commuting brings stability to a pilot’s life — if he’s forced to move with his domicile, then he has to uproot his family and sell his house every time. That can be costly, and in the long run, would cost the airline a lot, either in terms of turnover or relocation costs. So really, commuting gives the airline flexibility and the flight crews stability. But if safety is the ultimate consideration, rest rules should be taken a step… Read more »
Nick Barnard

I wonder what the rules around “being in the same time zone for 36 hours” are? If they’re flying how do you figure out what time zone they’re in? That also bypasses the whole commuting problem again.

David M

I would assume that “being in the same time zone” while flying means that the origin and destination airports are both in the same time zone. So a pilot flying north-south routes along the east or west coast says in the same timezone, but a pilot flying transcons doesn’t.

I thought the proposed 9 HOURS in the hotel meant the clock now started once you arrived to your hotel. That’s 9 HOURS between flights, I thought. You dont get 9 HOURS in the hotel, you just begin your rest. Example: Flight arrives at 11:30pm. You arrive at the Hotel at Midnight. Clock begins. Your departure for the next day in 9AM. You leave the hotel at 8am for the van ride to the airport. You GOT UP at 7am to shower and get dressed. In all likelihood, you got just under 7 HOURS of sleep.
dan powers

eptember 15, 2010 
FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt 
800 Independence Avenue, SW 
Washington, DC 20951 
Dear Administrator: 
As a career airline pilot and lifelong advocate for aviation safety, I have followed the Federal Aviation 
Administration’s efforts to update the current flight and duty time regulations with great interest.   From 
over forty years – and 20,000 hours – in the cockpit, I know firsthand the danger that fatigue can play in 
daily airline operations.  I have taken the time to review and consider the recently published Notice of 
Proposed Rulemaking regarding flight and duty time.  While I applaud the FAA for moving forward with 
some of the changes that are needed to protect the safety of the traveling public, I have serious 
reservations about many of the components of the rule.  Specifically: 
1) The NPRM allows scheduling of pilots for ten hours of flight per day, which is a 25% increase 
from the current maximum of eight hours. 
a. Put simply, the way to solve fatigue is not to schedule pilots to fly more hours per 
b. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that supports the safety of increasing 
allowable flying time.  All of the studies done to date are predicated on a maximum 
eight hours of flying in a duty day. 
c. In the preamble to these new rules, the FAA itself agrees, stating that, “The longer 
one spends on task, the greater the likelihood of fatigue; and fatigue leads to an 
increased risk of making a mistake.” 
2) The required nine hours at a rest facility is not enough to guarantee eight hours of sleep, 
even under the best of conditions.  
a. Human beings’ natural circadian rhythms do not necessarily coincide with the 
established rest periods of a trip.  Late night flights – and the early morning rest 
periods they require – are a frequent, real?world example. 
b. The time necessary for other personal responsibilities – basic needs like eating, 
showering, or a phone call home – is not considered. 
c. Even this nine hour standard, which is being offered as necessary for flight safety, 
can be reduced to eight hours once a week for operational considerations.  But a 
pilot will not be less fatigued today just because there is the promise of more sleep 
tomorrow.  In fact, the operational reductions would most commonly be the result 
of weather and maintenance issues, which in and of themselves increase the stress 
and fatigue of the pilot.  And this is compounded because fatigue is cumulative. 
3) While the maximum duty hours are reduced from the previous regulations, they can be 
extended by up to two hours for operational purposes. 
a. Once again, if a 13 hour duty day is the express standard to ensure a safe pilot, 
extending the duty day to 15 hours can only harm the potential safety of the flight – 
and for purely economic reasons. 
b. The rule allows an extension of the duty day while under the most stressful fatigue?
inducing weather, air traffic control or maintenance delays. 4) The NPRM has no limit on actual flying time for both domestic and international augmented 
flight crews.  Actual flight hours for three?person crews could be as high as 16 hours. 
a. Augmentation of a flight crew from two to three pilots was created for flights over 
oceans or geographical terrain where a crew swap was not possible. 
b. Domestic augmentation, where a crew swap is easily accomplished, is a degradation 
of safety and is motivated by purely economic concerns. 
5) The current limit of 30 hours of flying in any seven day period would be eliminated in favor 
of a limit of 60 hours on duty in any 168 hours (one week).  However, 60 hours on duty in 
one week is the equivalent of 1.5 normal work weeks. 
While there are good concepts incorporated within this NPRM, the stated purpose of the rulemaking 
process was to enhance the safety of the traveling public by reducing pilot fatigue.  This NPRM does 
neither.  As a professional who has successfully handled an extreme emergency situation, with no 
margin for error, I cannot stress strongly enough that these issues must be addressed.   My First Officer 
and I had only 208 seconds from the moment we hit the birds until we landed – there was simply no 
time for fatigue.   
Although I would support the concept and structure of the rule change as a better system than the 
current regulation, the specifics of the proposal must be altered to achieve the desired result: 
mandating that pilots be allowed the rest they need to perform at their very best.  As this proposal is 
written, it neither improves safety nor decreases fatigue, which was the stated goal of the FAA and 
should be the stated goal of the entire industry.  More work needs to be done to address these issues 
before this can truly be considered a comprehensive rule change addressing the critical issue of pilot 
fatigue. The traveling public deserves it.   
Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III 

matt weber
Not sure that 16 hours is really much of a problem. Only 1 US flag airline has an aircraft capable of flying a 16+ hour mission, and I don’t think they are operating any missions with it that materially exceed 14 hours, nor do they appear to be planning any. It is also unlikely that early 787-8’s will have any longer legs. The number of commercial viable routes that require 16+ hour flight times is very limited, and the one really attractive on, LHR-SYD, no aircraft (either in service or planned) is capable of operating with anything near a commercil… Read more »

Matt, one of us is misunderstanding something here. When I read “16 hours” in anything to do with flight crews, I interpret that to mean 16 hours of DUTY time, not FLIGHT time. Duty time has nothing to do with mission length of an airframe… in the cases you describe, which clearly refer to flight time, the flights have and will be crewed with a supplemental flight crew — that is, an extra one or two pilots.

Tom Paddon

I cannot match Capt Sullenberger in career length or hours(only 16000 over 38 yrs) but I agree on all the points he raises.
Incidentally , concerning extra pilots with “bunk rest” – it doesn’t work. Many years ago I experienced this on UK to Australia routes and proper rest was impossible.
T. Paddon , Capt.(long retired)