Airlines Sue FAA Over Crew Rest Rules

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DALLAS – Several of the nation's largest airlines have joined in a lawsuit to block stronger federal rules on crew rest during the longest international flights.

The airlines say that the Federal Aviation Administration bypassed usual rule-making procedures and denied them the right to comment before it notified American Airlines and Continental Airlines Inc. of the new rules in late October.

The petition was filed Dec. 24 in the federal appellate court in Washington by American, Continental, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, US Airways, JetBlue and two smaller carriers.

In their filing, the airlines said the new requirements would saddle them with "substantial burdens and costs." They charged FAA did not show how the rules would improve safety.

The FAA rules would require that pilots on the longest international flights get more rest before flying again. The extra rest would be required even when only 10 percent of flights on a particular route exceed 16 hours.

The FAA was trying to address pilot fatigue, which unions and others have argued is a growing safety concern, especially on flights that can run 16 hours or longer.

American, a unit of AMR Corp., believes that FAA should follow "the accepted and required process" of giving notice and allowing the industry and public to comment before issuing new rules, said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American.

Wagner said FAA should get comments from experts on fatigue, airlines, unions and others.

"We believe that the safest rules come from that process because the FAA itself becomes more knowledgeable and better educated through the comment period," he said.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said crew fatigue is a serious safety issue.

"It makes sense for airlines to use an FAA-approved program based on the latest science — circadian rhythm and time-zone changes — to reduce the risk of fatigue to flight crews," she said.

Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation's largest carrier, did not join the lawsuit. It agreed to more crew rest before and after the longest international flights while being allowed to sometimes work pilots more than eight hours a day.

The FAA's Duquette called Delta's "a model program."

In a letter to American, FAA officials said they met with "potentially affected stakeholders" in April, May and June and changed their proposal in response to some of the comments.

Pilot fatigue has become a more visible safety issue as U.S. airlines seek to expand service to Asia, often flying long polar routes. At American, it pitted pilots against the airline.

In 2006, the pilots' union refused to endorse American's bid for an extra route to China when the airline refused to negotiate over pay for canceled flights and other concessions. The flights between Dallas and Beijing would have exceeded limits on flying time and workday length under the pilots' contract.

The two sides had reached a side deal to allow similar long flights between Chicago and New Delhi the year before.

Continental pilots — who have flown between Newark, N.J., and Hong Kong for more than seven years — sided with their airline in opposing some of the FAA's requirements. The union told regulators that Continental's minimum rest after arriving in Hong Kong was adequate.