Industry Lobbied FAA over Pilot Fatigue Rules, Reports Say

A proposed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passenger safety rule aimed at limiting the number of hours pilots can fly may have been delayed over concerns about the rule’s cost-benefit analysis, the Associated Press reports.

First flight

FAA pledged to set rules in 2009 in response to a February plane crash near Buffalo, NY, that killed 50. “National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that both pilots on the flight were probably suffering from fatigue, although fatigue wasn't a direct cause of the accident,” AP reports.

But the proposal was not sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) - the last major step before an agency can publish a proposed rule and open it for public comment – until Aug. 31. FAA announced the proposed rule today, almost 19 months after the crash.

Why did it take so long to merely propose the rule? AP says regulators and industry were bickering over the estimated costs and benefits of the rule:

Lawmakers, industry officials and union leaders familiar with the process say the difficulty is in demonstrating that the safety benefits of stricter rules on flight hours - lives saved and injuries avoided - would outweigh the cost of the rules to the struggling airline industry. […]

The result, these insiders say, has been a monthslong back-and-forth between the government and industry.

Officials at airline trade associations say they haven't been lobbying to block or delay new regulations. But the cost estimates the airline industry has supplied the government amount to a kind of lobbying, said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"I know for sure they are using the rulemaking process to make their case," said Oberstar, who has talked privately with Babbitt about the situation. He said one reason for the delay is that the FAA has been trying to "bulletproof" the proposal against possible challenges. 

In part because the rulemaking process is so opaque, we can’t truly know what went on behind the scenes. If FAA was busy improving the rule, as Oberstar says, the delay may prove valuable. But the AP story brings to mind a scenario in which regulators and industry officials are in regular contact, negotiating over the rule’s requirements and cost estimates, while passengers were unable to speak up about the benefits of the rule.

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