WASHINGTON — Amid fierce opposition from charter and cargo airlines, as well as alarms raised by Pentagon officials, the Obama administration has delayed new safety rules aimed at preventing airline pilots from becoming so exhausted that they make dangerous mistakes.
The Federal Aviation Administration was supposed to have final rules in place by Aug. 1 under a law passed by Congress last year in response to a 2009 regional airline crash in western New York that killed 50 people.
The FAA proposed new rules last year designed to address long-standing concerns that pilot fatigue contributes to errors that cause accidents. They would reshape decades-old regulations governing how many hours a pilot can be on duty or at the controls of a plane, to take into account the latest scientific understanding of how fatigue slows human reflexes and erodes judgment.
Administration officials declined to comment on the reasons for the delay. A new schedule for issuing final rules indicates the target date — which has been repeatedly pushed back — is now in late November.
Charter airlines are demanding to be exempted from the new rules. Charter airlines not only fly tourists and sports teams, they provide the planes and pilots for thousands of military flights every year. Civilian airlines transport more than 90 percent of U.S. troops and 40 percent of military cargo around the globe under contracts with the Pentagon. The trips are frequently long, usually at night and often to danger spots like Afghanistan.
The nation's top aviation accident investigator blamed the delay in issuing final rules on the influence of airlines that put profit ahead of safety.
"There are special interests who are holding this rule up because it's not in their financial self-interest," National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman told the Associated Press this week.
The proposed rules would allow some pilots to fly more hours — 10 instead of the current maximum of eight — if they begin their day in the morning so that most of their flying takes place during the daytime. But pilots who fly overnight would be allowed fewer than eight hours because people crave sleep during those hours.
The rule could force airlines to add one or two relief pilots to the normal two-pilot flight crew on long, overseas flights.