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Cargo's fatigue rule exemption

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Ever since FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on pilot flight time, duty and rest in September 2010, cargo airlines in particular have pushed back. Their biggest objection: the operational requirements for freight carriage differ greatly from passenger transport, and imposing passenger pilot requirements on cargo pilots would be tremendously costly.

That argument held sway with FAA, which finalized a strict new pilot fatigue rule Wednesday—but completely exempted cargo carriers. "Covering cargo operators under the new rule would be too costly compared to the benefits generated in this portion of the industry," FAA stated.

The carriers are encouraged by FAA "to opt into the new rule voluntarily, which would require them to comply with all of its provisions." But it's highly unlikely FedEx, UPS and other cargo airlines will opt in unless some significant carve outs from the rule are granted to them. That's because many of the rule's provisions would hit them much harder than their passenger counterparts.

A premise underpinning the new rule (based, FAA said, on research on "natural circadian rhythms") is that fatigue comes more quickly at night than during daytime hours. Therefore, FAA varies flight duty time limits to between 9 hours and 14 hours based on when a pilot begins his or her day, with later starters generally restricted to fewer hours. Since nighttime is primetime for air cargo, a FedEx or UPS pilot would almost always fall on the low end of the hour restrictions. This would necessitate dramatic alterations of current operational norms to comply with the rule.

Nevertheless, there is something somewhat unsettling about FAA's decision. Why is it OK to exempt cargo carriers completely? "Risk is heightened in passenger operations because of the additional number of potentially impacted individuals," FAA stated.

In plainer English: the lives of two or three pilots flying a freighter aircraft are less valuable than the lives of 50-500 passengers being ferried by a commercial aircraft. Politically, of course, this is undeniably true. But this calculation has always bothered cargo pilots and their families, understandably so.

While mostly praising the new rule, US National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said, "We are extremely disappointed that the new rule is limited to [passenger] carriers. A tired pilot is a tired pilot … whether the payload is passengers or pallets."

UPS Capt. Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Assn. union, said in a statement, "Giving air cargo carriers the choice to opt-in to new pilot rest rules makes as much sense as allowing truckers to 'opt-out' of drunk driving laws. To potentially allow fatigued cargo pilots to share the same skies with properly rested passenger pilots creates an unnecessary threat to public safety. We can do better … We will ask UPS to voluntarily operate under these new science-based safety rules. UPS is a premier company and our expectation is that UPS will honor their longstanding pledge to operate the world's safest airline."

This will be a tricky issue for UPS and FedEx, both very high profile global companies, to navigate.

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