By SLOBODAN LEKIC – 4 days ago

Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — The U.N. agency that sets standards for air transport is drawing up new safety rules to take into account a silent killer: Pilot fatigue.

Over the past 15 years, nearly a dozen fatal crashes and numerous close calls have been blamed on pilot fatigue, whose effects safety experts compare with driving drunk.

Pilot fatigue was a key cause of one of the deadliest crashes in aviation history — when a Korean Air Boeing 747 heading to Guam plowed into a hillside in 1997 and killed 228 people.

Air safety organizations and pilot unions have for years been pressing for tighter regulation and enforcement of working hours and rest periods. They say scientific research has identified pilot fatigue as a factor in a fifth of all fatal crashes.

The International Civil Aviation Agency is now preparing to abandon current rules based on flight time limitations in favor of a completely new concept known as “fatigue risk management systems,” which draw on the latest scientific research into sleep and other factors affecting crew performance.

Fatigue is defined as a decreased ability to work due to mental or physical stress. Symptoms can include longer reaction times, short-term memory loss, impaired judgment and reduced visual perception.

The new guidelines are due to be reviewed in spring and released later in the year, spokeswoman Sue-Ann Rapattoni said.

Safety experts expect the new systems to focus on closely tracking flight crew duty times as well as the duration and quality of rest periods, sleep cycles, nutrition and possible illnesses.

“The aviation business has pretty much outgrown the arbitrary flight time limits of the past (and) it is time to take a more thoughtful approach that uses what we know about fatigue to make the system better for everybody,” said William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation from Alexandria, Virginia.

Pilots complain that mandated rest periods are now only calculated according to the time spent in the air rather than total time on duty. A pilot’s daily schedule might include only a short period of actual flying, but 12 or 14 hours of total time on duty — including layovers, delays and so on. Rosters sometimes call for a crew to work three or four straight days in this way.

Furthermore, crew rest periods often include transit time to and from hotels and meal times, so that a nine-hour rest period could allow for only about six hours of sleep.

Patrick Smith, a U.S. based-airline pilot and aviation writer, says fatigue is a particular problem among regional carriers, where daily schedules can be brutal and layovers are often at the minimum legal duration. In contrast, long-haul passenger flights carry bigger crews and pilots take scheduled breaks, often in comfortable rest quarters.

Pilots have proposed using simple measures such as cockpit naps to combat fatigue. Some national regulations already allow one pilot to nap while the other works during cruise, so that both are alert when landing.

Capt. Gavin McKellar, chairman of the accident analysis committee of the London-based International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations, cited the Korean Airlines crash as an example of cumulative fatigue. Before the flight, the pilot had flown from Seoul to Australia and back, to Hong Kong and back and then on to Guam, all with only a few hours of rest, he said.

“Chronic fatigue is a factor in causing accidents and incidents much more than it is given credit for,” McKellar said. “Its debilitating effects are just as, if not more, potent than alcohol.”

In a 2004 crash in Missouri that killed 13 people, a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the crew’s tiredness after spending 14.5 hours on duty had “likely contributed to their degraded performance.” And in their report on an accident in Halifax, Canada in 2004, in which seven people died, Canadian investigators concluded that the pilot had typed incorrect information into his plane’s computer after spending 19 hours on duty.

Air transport regulators around the world have been criticized for being too lenient with airlines and not enforcing regulations that address pilot fatigue until a crash occurs.

Many carriers in the United States, Europe and Asia, frequently make rosters for crews based on the upper limit of flying time for a pilot, said Philip von Schoppenthau, secretary-general of the Brussels-based European Cockpit Association, a continentwide pilots’ union.

In Europe, for instance, current flight time regulations allow for a maximum duty period of 13 hours. Even this can be extended by an hour twice a week, according to a guide issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be a passenger on the last flight of a pilot who is on the end of his third consecutive 60-hour duty week,” von Schoppenthau said.