New Pilot Rest Rules May Be Good, but Cargo Pilots and Small Cities Should be Worried

Toward the end of the year, the FAA announced the final rule regarding changes in pilot rest requirements. [Read the entire final rule] This has been in the works for years, though it moved to the front burner after the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo a couple years back. The new rule will require more rest for most pilots, and that is generally a good idea. What isn’t a good idea is that cargo pilots are left out. They’re the big losers here, but small cities will also feel pain for a different reason. I’ll explain below.

Castaway Pilot Rest

The new rules don’t go into effect for a couple of years, but the impacts will likely start being felt sooner than that. After all, when pilots are given more rest, that means the airlines need more pilots to fly their schedules. So the airlines will need to start ramping up before the rule becomes law just to make sure that they’re in compliance. How many more pilots will an airline need? It’s hard to know since every airline is different. It’s not like they’re going to need to double the number of pilots they have or anything, but there will need to be more. Combine that with the end of the retirement holiday we’ve been living under for the last 5 years, and there are going to be a lot of job opportunities for pilots. (When the retirement age for pilots was raised from 60 to 65, that meant 5 years where no pilot would be forced to retire, and we’re getting to the end of those five years.)

Of course, when airlines need to hire more pilots to fly the same schedule, that means costs go up. Again, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just the way it is. So why do I say that small cities will be hurt most here? It has to do with the Flight Duty Period (FDP).

Today, pilots can be on duty up to 16 hours straight, and that’s called the Flight Duty Period. During that time, they can actually fly up to 8 hours (or more if there are unforeseen circumstances). Now, those numbers are changing depending upon when they fly and how many flights they have. So if a pilot comes on duty between midnight and 4a, then he can’t be on duty for more than 9 hours no matter what. If he comes on duty between 7a and noon, then he can max out at 14 hours on duty because that’s more normal for the body’s clock. (There are adjustments required depending upon how long the pilot has been in that time zone.)

But even if the pilot comes on duty at 8a, he can only be on duty for 14 hours if he has no more than 2 flights during that time. It slowly decreases the amount of time he can be on duty until you hit 7 flights. At that point, he can be on duty no more than 11.5 hours.

See how this is coming together? Small cities are the ones served by short hops, and regional pilots have the grueling task of flying many short hops during the day. That kind of flying is exhausting, and that’s why it’s those pilots who are going to see the biggest gains in terms of rest. Costs will go up most as a percentage for the regional airlines, it would seem to me, and that again puts pressure on costs to small cities that are already in trouble.

The rest of the rules impact pilots more broadly. While pilots could actually fly only 8 hours in a duty period before, it’s now up to 9 hours only if reporting between 5a and 8p. Overnight operations are still capped at 8 hours, but it’s important to note that there is no exception anymore. These times are hard cut-offs now. This changes when you have additional pilots on board for longer haul flights, but the framework is roughly the same.

When it comes to rest in between duty periods, that’s changing as well. Today, rest can be as little as 8 hours between the time a pilots is released from duty until the time he’s back on again. That hardly gives the opportunity for adequate rest in many cases. The new rule is 10 hours between periods, and that’s designed so that pilots can get 8 hours of sleep. That won’t always happen of course, but it is an improvement in the rule. And pilot are supposed to tell the company if they haven’t had enough sleep during that rest period. (I imagine that sounds better in theory that what will actually take place.)

There are other rules as well but we don’t need to get into the weeds here. The point is that this will help pilots to be more rested, and that’s a good thing . . . at least, most pilots.

There is a crazy carve-out here that exempts cargo carriers from the new rules, as I mentioned up top. Apparently, the cargo lobbying group earned its money, because this seems impossible to justify in any normal situation. Last time I checked, cargo pilots had the same value to their lives as commercial pilots, so if a certain amount of rest is deemed necessary for commercial pilots, then it should be the same for cargo. It’s probably even more important for cargo since they do much more of their flying overnight, against their natural body rhythm.

So are these rules good? I’m not a sleep scientist, so I can’t comment on if this change is enough, but the method that they settled on – trying to adjust to the body’s clock – seems smart to me. Yes, there will be a cost increase, but at least pilots will be better rested. It does, however, mean there’s even more pressure on the already-struggling small cities.

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