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Hearing of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee - The Pilot Flight and Duty Time Rule


Location: Washington, DC

I thank Chairman Costello and Ranking Member Petri for holding this hearing on the long-awaited pilot flight and duty time rule. I look forward to hearing more about the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on "Flightcrew Member Duty and Rest Requirements," released earlier this week. I welcome our witnesses, and look forward to hearing their testimony.

Fatigue is one of the most critical issues facing pilots today, especially in this economic downturn, and with the airlines' emphasis on increasing productivity and driving down labor costs. Working long hours on an irregular schedule can have a detrimental effect on a pilot's decision-making and performance. Well-rested pilots are critical to aviation safety. As I have repeatedly said: "Fatigue" does not show up in autopsies! Our nation's pilots must be provided adequate rest to perform their critical safety functions.

In 1999, then Aviation Subcommittee held two hearings on pilot fatigue where we heard powerful testimony that FAA's current flight and duty rules for pilots were not only outdated and abused by the airlines, but also that the agency had failed repeatedly to adequately address the situation. Unfortunately, it took the tragic events in Little Rock1 that year to again turn the spotlight to this issue. In Little Rock, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that fatigue contributed to the cause of the accident because it impaired the flight crew's performance, which led to the failure to discontinue the approach when severe thunderstorms moved into the airport area, and led to other omissions by the crew.

Again eleven years later, it has taken another crash to shine the spotlight on pilot fatigue and on the same fatigue rules that applied in 1999 and before. The NTSB investigation of the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York, which killed 50 people, rocked the airline industry, stunned the American public, and identified the need to closely examine the regulations governing pilot training and rest requirements. The NTSB did not make fatigue a causal factor of the accident, though it did find that the evidence suggested that both pilots were likely experiencing some degree of fatigue at the time of the accident, which may have contributed to the errors and decisions made by the pilots.

In response to the Colgan tragedy, the Subcommittee on Aviation held a series of hearings, receiving testimony from the FAA, the NTSB, the Department of Transportation Inspector General, pilots' unions, airline representatives, and the representatives of the Colgan Air Flight 3407 Families.

Based on these hearings and several longstanding NTSB recommendations, this Subcommittee drafted comprehensive safety legislation -- H.R. 3371, the "Airline Safety and Pilot Training Improvement Act of 2009", which passed the House last October by 409 to 11. This legislation was rolled into H.R. 5900, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-216), the most recent FAA extension legislation, and signed into law August 1, 2010. The law includes airline safety and pilot training provisions that we negotiated with the Senate, including a requirement that the FAA update and implement new flight and duty time rules for pilots within one year, to more adequately address the results of scientific research in the field of fatigue.

In 1995, the FAA proposed a fatigue rule based on the recommendations of an
Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). Last year, the FAA withdrew the 1995 NPRM, formed another ARC, and planned to publish another fatigue proposal by the end of 2009. I am glad that the FAA is moving forward, although I would note that the FAA's last proposed flight and duty time rule languished for over 15 years due to industry opposition. With this week's publication in the Federal Register of a completely new proposed rule, I am optimistic that the FAA will publish a final rule that will prevent future tragedies. The law now requires it, and this Subcommittee will maintain vigilant oversight to ensure that the rule is completed on time.

I also have concerns about whether pilots who work second jobs or live long distances from their work stations are adequately rested when they start their work schedule. Current FAA regulations only govern hours worked as a pilot, and leave off-duty activities to pilots' good judgment. Accordingly, the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 we enacted in August, directs the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of pilot commuting on fatigue and provide preliminary results to the FAA after 120 days to be considered as part of the flight and duty time rulemaking. I am pleased that a section of the FAA's proposed rule makes pilots and airlines equally accountable for responsible commuting practices; however, the rule's further discussion of commuting contains hortatory language that does not impose specific requirements, and we must carefully consider if this will be effective.

Administrator Babbitt continues to cite deteriorating professionalism as a factor negatively affecting safety, and has called upon aviation industry workers to raise their level of professionalism. This it is an important point, and it appears to have been a factor in the Flight 3407 tragedy. However, I would add to this point that I have often observed that airline safety begins in the company boardroom. If regulations are paid lip service in the boardroom in an effort to increase the bottom line, we all fail. Each airline must have a strong safety culture and must commit to ensuring that the highest levels of safety are maintained.

We must keep the FAA on task in resolving these very significant and complex pilot flight and duty time rule issues. We cannot and will not wait longer.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.

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