The debate over whether new rest rules for commercial airline pilots should apply to their counterparts flying cargo gained new attention today when a federal hearing revealed that a UPS (UPS) pilot who died in a crash told a colleague that his work schedule was “killing” him.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash of a UPS jumbo jet on approach to the airport in Birmingham, Ala., before dawn on Aug. 14, which killed both the captain, Cerea Beal, 58, and the first officer, Shanda Fanning, 37. The Airbus (AIR:FP) A300 jet was descending too steeply and struck a hill a mile from the runway, erupting into flames.
UPS maintains that the new Federal Aviation Administration rules do not fit for air cargo networks, regardless of cost considerations, and says both pilots’ period of time off before the day of the crash would have met the requirements of the rest rules. Beal had been off for eight days before he reported for work, according to UPS, and the company says its pilots receive rest periods that are 25 percent to 50 percent longer than the FAA requires. (UPS, FedEx (FDX), and other cargo airlines aren’t required to follow the rest rules.)
Beal, a former U.S. Marine helicopter pilot, told a fellow UPS pilot on Aug. 13 that “the schedules are killing him and he could not keep this up,” according to records released at the hearing. The flight from Louisville to Birmingham was the third and final flight of the pilots’ work schedule for their shift, which began at about 8:30 p.m. in Rockford, Ill. They had a four-hour layover before the flight to Alabama, and both requested keys for pilot restrooms that UPS maintains in Louisville at its largest air package facility.
“Our position remains unchanged: the FAA has recognized that there are significant differences between passenger and cargo networks,” UPS Airlines spokesman Mike Mangeot wrote in an e-mail. “Cargo networks involve fewer flight legs and more opportunities for rest. The FAA has acknowledged in the past that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”
Others disagree, including the Independent Pilots Association, which represents 2,600 UPS pilots. The union sued the FAA immediately after the exemption for cargo airlines was disclosed, arguing that cargo pilots also suffer fatigue and should be covered the same as those who fly passengers. The IPA, which enjoys generally amicable relations with UPS, did not name the company as a defendant. The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents the 4,353 pilots at FedEx Express, is also pushing for the FAA to reconsider.
“Cargo pilots fly the same aircraft, the same routes, within the same airspace, and into the same airports as passenger airlines,” Scott Stratton, chairman of the FedEx ALPA unit, said in a statement shortly after the new rest rules took effect last month. “Moreover, cargo operations often take place at night or early morning for express delivery of packages, working what is commonly referred to as the ‘graveyard shift,’ thus increasing pilot fatigue. It does not make sense for the world leader in airline safety, the FAA, to exclude cargo operations from science-based rules.”
A bill is also pending in Congress, dubbed the Safe Skies Act, which would circumvent the FAA’s decision and require cargo airlines to operate under the same rest rule. Most analyses have found that airlines need to hire about 5 percent more pilots to comply with the rule, which was drafted in response to a 2009 fatal crash in upstate New York.
While a spokesman for the UPS pilots’ union declined on Thursday to draw any connections between the Alabama crash and pilot fatigue, it’s a safe bet that many people—including some in Congress—will do just that. And freight carriers may face higher costs.