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

Government Regulation, Labor Relations

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

    1. These are real concerns and my son is a relatively new pilot at a Cargo company. He’s doing everything they are asking of him but flying way too many hours in one shift. In fact he just got off work after pulling 17 hours. You can’t tell me that that can’t be stopped! This company needs a union where I’ll assure you he would not be working those kind of hours in one shift. So what can be done to help my son as new man on the totem pole? What can we do as we sit back and wait to see if he’ll be ok another flight? Please someone give us some advise!!!

    1. I totally agree with David. The Colgan Air crash in Buffalo is cited as the reason that these rules were needed. But both pilots in that crash were on the very first day of their trip – in fact I think it was their first flight of the day. The issue was not did the industry rules make them too tired to perform their duties well – the issue is that they came to work unrested.

      Both pilots commuted to EWR, where they are based, from other cities. The co-pilot flew overnight on a Fedex freighter in a pilot jump seat. These jump seats are very uncomfortable. She had a 2.5 hour layover in MEM from about 2am to 4:30am. When she arrived in EWR she spent the time in the crew lounge until she reported for duty. The pilot flew in the night before from Florida and spent the night in the crew lounge, which is not for sleeping and has fluorescent lights that stay on all night. He was logged into the computer system during the night.

      Neither pilot had a full night’s sleep, or really any quality sleep the night before they reported for duty. Did that impact their ability to make decisions correctly that contributed to the crash?

      I think the rules need to be much harsher – any pilot who commutes from more than 2 hours away should be required to arrive the night before beginning duty and demonstrate that they have access to a private bed – whether it’s employer provided or a crash pad the pilots rent.

      The commuting culture – which contribute to low wages – is part of the problem. Else the airlines need to raise pay so people can afford to live at the bases, or move the bases to where living costs are lower. Right now it is the commuting that enables the low pay, and the commuting culture means that pilots are tired when they report for duty.

      Under the new rules the pilots have to sign that they are “fit for duty” but I would guess if a pilot considers himself not “fit for duty” then they won’t be paid. The rules need to be more stringent to ensure pilots are rested at the beginning of their shifts.

    1. @David I would also like to hear more about commuting.

      I guess this is good, and will only marginally increase costs on large city pairs. However, regional will be hit hard.

      Does this only affect the main carriers or also Part 135(121?) carriers like Cape Air?

  1. Since the new rules come at the same time as the big retirement wave, is it possible this could be/was designed to be offsetting costs to some extent (perhaps giving too much credit to the government). The pilots retiring are probably the most experienced, most expensive pilots. Any new hbe much lower on the salary scale. I know that this statement has a problem in that the most experienced pilots are retiting from the mainline service and the most additional pilots are needed in regionals, but as an industry there should be some offsetting: ie between the entire United or Delta or AA etc system.

  2. Were these two events (time rule and retirement) timed to be close or is it just coincidence? One could optimistically think that the two rules going into effect I close proximity was designed (more likely coincidentally) to help airlines offset the affect of each.

    One would presume that the pilots being required to retire are the most experiences, highest paid pilots in a system and the any new hires would be coming in towar the bottom of the pay scale. Although you would need more pilots, perhaps in the short term the expense of the additional new pilots would be offset by lower wages than those retiring.

    Of course the hole in that theory is that there are probably more higher paid retires from the mainline services and more of the additional pilots required by the regionals which already have lower salaries (and therefore the newbies would not be less expensive or have a net offset effect). Overall within a system there would be offsetting costs: AA would see the effect since it owns Eagle (for now) but United, Delta etc would have a balance issue between mainline and express subsidiary expenses.

    1. Sorry for the double post. I thought my Blackberry had lost my posting when I hi Post, but what do you know… The thing worked for a change.

  3. There’s two years to sort through the nuances of these regs but in the end the regional industry will be most affected. Revenue is fixed and margins are low so the additional cost of pilots will be burdensome. Small cities might be hurt, as they often count on a late night flight in and a morning flight out flown by the same crew. With additional rest required either the flight times must adjust (possibly missing hub banks) or a second overnighting crew is required (increasing cost). Either way it’s something that gets harder to justify the smaller a city gets.

    From the pilots’ perspective they get paid by the hour, so hiring additional pilots for the same amount of flying amounts to a dilution of pay, a reduction of the average pay per duty day, and necessarily a need to work additional days to achieve the same income, thus negating some value of the rest regs. Expect interesting negotiations as this dynamic plays out.

    I expect cities served by the 8-flights/day t-prop pilots won’t be too hard hit. Those guys can do 8 flights in 10 hours, with short flights and short turns. Harder hit will be the RJ cities where crews might take 13 hours to make only 6 flights, taking multiple-hour breaks at hubs, waiting for the next bank to come. Perhaps we’ll see more rolling banks in an effort to keep pilots moving.

    The increased block hour limit might be a boon for coastal hubbed airlines like jetBlue, in that they can run round trips further with the same crews. BOS-DEN would now be legal.

    1. I’m curious how long the average regional jet contract with the majors run. It isn’t unexpected that this change is happening, so I wonder if the regionals have either put in a clause allowing them to adjust rates in relation to the duty rule changes, or perhaps the contracts expiry dates are timed so they’ll be able to renegotiate with this in mind?

      CF, do you have a gut opinion on this?

      1. Many contracts will run longer than the 2 year implementation period. I would imagine that the regionals will have to come back to get an adjustment from their partners. Though I’ve never seen a regional contract, there has to be something in there that allows them to pass through costs related to regulatory changes.

  4. Perhaps airlines could get around this rule for small cities by scheduling pilots to do one long-distance flight and a couple of short regional flights per day… would that work?

  5. Jim, the problem is many of the longer flights and shorter flights are flown by different companies, or at least on different equipment. It makes coordination that much trickier..

  6. I think the rules need to be much harsher ? any pilot who commutes from more than 2 hours away should be required to arrive the night before beginning duty and demonstrate that they have access to a private bed ? whether it?s employer provided or a crash pad the pilots rent.

    that’s insane. You’re trying to legislate someone’s time OFF. They’re NOT getting paid nor they’re on the clock. And, the company isnt paying for the crash pad. HENCE, the problem arises when the airline isnt accomodating the commuting culture. They’re basing their trips on cost, NOT necessarily, SAFETY. They’re REQUIRED to follow FAA mandated regulations for crews while on duty, but they dont consider that upwards of 80 PERCENT of all airline flight crews——–> COMMUTE.

    1. 20/20 should do a story on this DIRTY LITTLE SECRET. Most crewmembers commute to work. I personally know pilots who slept at the airport in lounge CHAIRS for years. They would fly in late at night, the day before their trip, get a few hours of sleep, IN UNIFORM, and go to work. There’s plenty of crash pads in LGA, entire homes are turned into “hotels” where dozens of pilots sleep prior to trips. You go in and see bunk beds, the more the better for who-ever owns the house for revenue. Try getting sleep when someone comes into the room late at night. Someone snores. Moves in bed. Gets up early for an O-dark-hundred flight. The costs vary, but, most pay alittle over $200.00 for the month to use these beds whenever they start a trip that requires a commute.

  7. I read somewhere that while yes, cargo pilots have the same “value” as everyone else, there are fewer lives at stake, hence the carve out. In other words a 747 full of pax has the value of 2 pilots plus 400 pax/crew, whereas a freigher only has the value of 2 pilots. To add more fuel to the fire, there are plenty of pilots who commute because they *can* afford to live in a different place–not sure how this will affect them.

  8. CF, I think you’re right in many ways, but you fall short of the impact this is going to have. I live near MHT in New Hampshire, a smaller airport that has already seen passenger traffic drop since the economy went south. The large percentage of flights into MHT is regional, which is going to be all but kicked to the curb by increasing pilot costs. Airports like BOS will absorb most of the traffic airlines will defer so as to cut new operations costs.

    So what results? Regionals will be dissolved in thie long run, thereby providing your glut of ‘spare’ pilots. There won’t be all those new pilot jobs, because they will be consumed by newly unemployed regional pilots leaving sparse opportunities for the rest. Just like the airline industry overhauls in the eighties and nineties: what one tosses away, a survivor will absorb.

    As with every change created under pressure and not thought out as to how it affects EVERYBODY, the ones who will lose are the flying public and the industry itself. The rules needed an overhaul. That’s not what it got.

    And as for locating domiciles near bases, raising pay for living where they want and requiring pilots report to work the night before, that’s not how the industry works. Pilots live where they want to live and make the effort to compensate for that choice. I’d like to see someone try to dictate to the pilot unions that the pilots have to live somewhere, especially a locale with a high cost of living. Colgan’s co-pilot lived on the west coast and commuted to New Jersey. There are plenty of places a lot closer than Washington state that one can commute to Newark and still afford to live, even if it’s with your parents.

    The industry is about to get shook up again.

    1. I don’t think this is going to be nearly as bad as you predict. Regionals will not be dissolved at all – but there will probably be some markets that no longer work on the margin. I do have a guest post coming up soon on impacts on small cities. You are right that smaller cities are definitely feeling the brunt of this.

      1. I agree that worst case scenarios will be that Regionals will not dissolve totally, but when you consider the fact that >80% of the Regionals cannot survive on their own without the mainline carrier for them to be symbiotic with, then I foresee that many will not outlive the survival instincts of the mainlines that eat their own. Those that strike out on their own still have to contend with a mainline monopoly of established notoriety; look at Independence Air, a former Regional that tried to make a name for itself but lasted … how long in more favorable circumstances? These new regulations – as written – are going to be very disruptive to the mainlines, especially those international operators. I don’t think I exagerrate when I say smaller airports like MHT and PVD, across the country will be hurt substantially, and thus the local businesses, workers, etc. It’s a domino effect that ripples across lines of business. I believe the government with the new rules as written, has crossed the line here in a big way; breaching the limits of oversight and stepping dangerously into dictating how an airline conducts business. The rules were written under pressure and not well thought out. After all, the government can’t run itself efficiently, now it’s telling industry how to run their business. There’s an old saying: Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.

        1. The reality is that the regionals can still fly smaller airplanes for less than the mainline guys, so as long as there are cities to be served with smaller airplanes (and the pilots agree in their scope clauses), then the regionals will exist.

  9. It may be 400 pax+2 crew but its the same airport/highway/front yard that they will crash on. Fatigue is fatigue. These rules are a step in the right direction. As for cost? The airlines have been operating at an unrealistic expense level by maximizing the pilot use to its fullest. A favorite example is a builder who brags about ‘building to code’. Whats to brag about? I want a house built better than the bare minimum and I want a pilot who has rested more than the bare minimum.

    1. That “airport/highway/front yard” is the same in both cases. The only difference is the passenger aircraft is full of passengers, so if you value everyone the same, then a passenger accident destroys more value than a freighter accident, and the risk is priced accordingly.

  10. The FAA is charged to regulate the airlines for the safety of the passengers, not necessarily the crews… The main reason for the new rule is the loss of passenger lives at Buffalo. Had the crash been a FedEx feeder, it likely would not have had the same regulatory outcome…

    IMO fatigue was only a contributing factor in the Buffalo tragedy… the main issue was crew incompetence and inability to employ the most basic airmanship skills during a stall recovery.

  11. Some folks are getting the cause and effect backward. Commuting doesn’t drive the low pay; the low pay drives the commuting. Being based in undesirable locations is a contributing factor, as well (if I were based in NYC, for example, and had the opportunity to commute, you wouldn’t find me within a thousand miles of the place).

    In the end, though, it’s solely the pilot’s responsibility to report for work in a fit state. Commuting is done for the pilot’s convenience, not the airline’s. Even in the most expensive parts of the country there are decent areas to live at a decent cost.

    1. Commuting is driven largely by the nature of a pilot’s career path at the airline…

      Since it is extremely rare for a pilot to be assigned a base near the his home, depending on personal priorities, a pilot will bid and be awarded a base, seat and equipment type based on his seniority. Most pilots believe it is best to take any upward opportunity that presents itself, meaning a number of different base/seat/equipment moves during their careers, some for as little as six months to a year depending on movement within the airline.

      For a pilot with a family, that would generate an unacceptable relocation frequency, making commuting the only viable solution to retain relative family harmony.

      The worrisome thing to many pilots is that the nanny state Feds will impose some sort of unworkable, onerous rule in an attempt to control pilots’ personal behavior of commuting. Rest assured that if the FAA (or worse, Congress) puts such a rule into effect, it will be an utter disaster for current pilots, and give new aviators one more reason NOT to become an airline pilot.

  12. I new of a pilot who lived in Princeton NJ & flew for AA. This allowed him to fly from PHL, LGA, JFK or EWR without long commutes, but greater Princeton is by no means a cheap place to live. The importent thing was flexability.

  13. I work for a Major Airline. I would make an informed guess that 3/4 of our pilots commute to work. As the Junior Pilots make well over six figures I don’t think that cost of living is a factor in their decision not to live near their base. As most of the employees for the airlines make less than the pilots but must (because they are not allowed to ride jumpseat and cannot fly for free on other carriers therefore limitting their travel options) live near their workplace, I am not sure how the cost of living comes into play. Is the question Cost of Living, or most pilots dont want to live in a $600 a month basement appartment like all the other airline employees.

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