New federal rules that effectively limit the hours that pilots can fly could add to delays and flight cancellations the next time a big storm hits as airlines adjust to the complex regulations aimed at combating pilot fatigue.
Those rules, which went into effect earlier this month, were blamed by some airlines for increasing the number of cancellations following the recent nor’easter that left some passengers at Logan International Airport stranded for a week. JetBlue Airways, for example, said it took the unusual step of canceling all Logan flights between the evening of Jan. 6 and afternoon of Jan. 7 in part to rest crews and comply with the new regulations.
Passengers could face similar problems in the near future as airlines try to figure out how best to staff, schedule, and supplement flight crews during bad weather, said Bill Swelbar, an analyst at MIT’s global airline industry program.
“I think that the new rules are going to be tested time and again, any time there are irregular conditions,” he said. “It’s going to take time for everyone to get used to the new rules. There’s a learning curve.”
The new rules for pilot hours were drafted and adopted following the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed all 49 on board. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the captain of the flight suffered from “chronic sleep loss” and that fatigue may have contributed to the pilot error blamed for the crash.
The new regulations restrict pilots’ hours based on a long list variables, such as the number of segments for a trip, the time the flight starts, the number of pilots for each flight, and whether the pilot has access to a quality rest facility. As the variables change, the maximum time a pilot can work and fly changes.
For example, a pilot starting at noon and flying four segments would be limited to 13 hours of duty that day, including time on the ground. Flying the same number of segments, but starting at midnight, would limit the pilot to nine hours on the job.
Analysts say accounting for all the variables requires complex scheduling that becomes more complex when bad weather leads to delays, cancellations, and diversions to other airports. A spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration said the regulations should not have had an impact on flight delays or cancellations.
JetBlue, however said they did, contributing to the nearly 2,000 flights canceled by the airline between Jan. 2 and Jan. 7. Delta, American Airlines, and United, which also experienced widespread cancellations during that period, declined to comment on the impact of the regulations.
Tamara Young, a JetBlue spokeswoman, said the airline was still grappling with how to best put the regulations into place, suggesting that the airline’s passengers could experience similar problems during another storm.
“While the new rules may cause deeper cancellations, which may not best meet the needs of the flying public,” Young said, “safety is always our first factor in all of our operating decisions.”
Patrick Smith, a pilot and blogger for Ask The Pilot, a website that aims to demystify air travel for flyers, said problems caused by the new regulations are likely to be short term as airlines get used to them and make adjustments. Nonetheless, Smith said, the rules are extremely complicated. One airline report that sought to interpret and explain the regulations simply ran more than 50 pages, he said.
“The FAA is notorious for sort of over-engineering a solution,” he said. “To some extent, the rules need to be complex, but they are probably more complex than they need to be.”
Since pilot scheduling is mostly automated, requiring a finely tuned algorithm to ensure things go smoothly, scheduling conflicts are difficult to both anticipate and fix once they happen, Smith said.
“There wasn’t a way to understand exactly how this was going to happen until it happened,” he said.
Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, a Washington trade group, said airlines invested thousands of dollars in modifying crew scheduling software, hired additional pilots or recalled furloughed pilots, and increased pilot reserve coverage to keep more pilots on call to prepare for the new regulations.
He said the industry is working with the FAA to identify problems associated with new rules, find ways to solve then, and keep them from adding to passengers’ difficulties during bad weather.