JetBlue Tests Pilot Fatigue Limits, With Passengers Aboard

The FAA has reprimanded JetBlue for conducting “highly unusual” experiments on pilot fatigue, on real flights, with live passengers.

Conducted on a small number of flights 18 months ago, JetBlue ordered cockpit crews to work 11 hours straight, 3 hours more than government regulations allow. The airline’s intent was to show that pilots could safely fly longer without ill effects.

“Passengers would be shocked that this was going on,” says David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for travelers. When travelers “buy tickets on commercial flights, they don’t expect to be test pilots themselves.””


“Capt. Dave Bushy, who championed fatigue-reducing programs as vice president of flight operations before leaving the company earlier this month for another carrier, said JetBlue and the rest of the industry “can be a lot smarter when it comes to scheduling and the use of science,” instead of just “living with 40-year-old regulations that don’t enhance the safety equation.”

JetBlue has won substantial favor among consumers as a low-cost carrier. However, being an unwitting test subjects in potentially hazardous cost efficacy experiment shouldn’t be hidden among those savings.

Wall Street Journal article reprinted inside. (Thanks to Adam!)

via this link (good until the 29th)

Pilot-Fatigue Test Lands JetBlue In Hot Water
Airline Pushed FAA Limits On Cockpit Time but Failed To Tell Passengers on Planes
October 21, 2006; Page A1

EMBARGOED! Last year, thousands of JetBlue Airways passengers became unwitting participants in a highly unusual test of pilot fatigue.

Without seeking approval from Federal Aviation Administration headquarters, consultants for JetBlue outfitted a small number of pilots with devices to measure alertness. Operating on a green light from lower-level FAA officials, management assigned the crews to work longer shifts in the cockpit — as many as 10 to 11 hours a day — than the eight hours the government allows. Their hope: Showing that pilots could safely fly far longer without exhibiting ill effects from fatigue.

The results of the test haven’t yet been made public — they are expected to be published by the end of the year — and JetBlue executives say even they don’t know the findings. But the experiment has landed JetBlue in hot water while fueling a fierce debate within the airline industry about how long pilots should be allowed to stay at the controls.
[Bulleted List]

At a time when every airline is itching to cut costs, squeezing more flying time from pilots has become a huge financial issue for carriers. But it is also a hot topic for regulators: The National Transportation Safety Board has cited pilot fatigue as an increasingly important factor in aviation accidents.

It has been nearly 18 months since the novel experiment, but the test — along with the FAA’s ultimate conclusion that it amounted to a backdoor effort to skirt safety rules — continues to roil parts of the aviation world. Senior FAA officials, angered by the move, privately say the airline’s approach has backfired. Because of heightened emotions about the test, proposals to extend the workday for commercial pilots have been pushed even further down the list of priorities at the FAA, they say.

FAA headquarters heard about the test from pilot-union officials and their supporters. When the head office “became aware that JetBlue operated some domestic flights outside the standard rules, we immediately investigated and took corrective action,” said James Ballough, head of flight standards for the agency. Mr. Ballough says officials are “confident that JetBlue’s pilots are flying to the FAA’s rules” now.

Another high-ranking FAA policy maker expressed his displeasure more bluntly: “We don’t allow experiments with passengers on board, period.”

The airline says it never intended to mislead anyone at the FAA, and the JetBlue spokeswoman chalked the situation up to “a miscommunication,” though, she says, in retrospect the company understands “we have to widen the circle of consultation.” JetBlue said: “Safety is our bedrock value. It is the fundamental promise we make, and keep, to our customers and crew members.”

The spokeswoman says there were no in-flight emergencies during the test period, and safety was never compromised because a third pilot was always on board to take the controls if needed. The JetBlue pilots who participated in the experiment volunteered for the assignment.

The concept of measuring second-by-second reactions of JetBlue pilots in everyday flight conditions was championed by Mark Rosekind, a well-known sleep researcher who previously has worked as a consultant for a number of large U.S. and foreign carriers.

JetBlue looked to Mr. Rosekind and his Cupertino, Calif., consulting firm, Alertness Solutions, to help sell the data-gathering idea to regulators. The overall plan was laid out in early 2005 for the FAA’s district office in New York, which is responsible for overseeing the New York-based carrier’s operations and its 1,500 pilots. That office expressed support for the plan.

The two-pilot crews were equipped with specially designed motion detectors on their wrists to measure activity, and participated in tests with hand-held computing devices that issued random prompts and then recorded the speed of responses. All told, JetBlue says 29 pilots, including the backup aviators, participated in more than 50 data-gathering flights during May 2005. All of the flights were domestic, and a big portion were coast-to-coast trips.

The carrier says it proceeded under the assumption that local FAA officials had the power to approve the company’s plans under so-called supplemental flight rules. Those rules specify that airlines flying longer distances must have at least one extra pilot on board so no single pilot flies more than eight hours in total. However, in the JetBlue test, even though each flight had a third pilot on board, the original crews stayed at the controls for more than 10 hours a day. None of the reserve pilots ever replaced a regular crew member.

“Passengers would be shocked that this was going on,” says David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for travelers. When travelers “buy tickets on commercial flights, they don’t expect to be test pilots themselves.”

JetBlue isn’t unionized, but once preliminary information about the flights started leaking out, pilot union leaders were quick to react. Union supporters complained to FAA headquarters, where red-faced senior officials acknowledged they were never informed about the initiative. As soon as agency leaders understood the significance of the local decision — and realized some of JetBlue’s competitors likely would start jockeying for similar efficiencies and economic benefits — they hit the roof. An FAA spokeswoman says local FAA managers didn’t have any comment.

Airlines often get approval from FAA district offices for various routine matters. But senior agency officials say that both the local office and JetBlue should have known that this was an exception because of the long-running and controversial nature of the issue.

The FAA reprimanded JetBlue, ordered it to clarify procedures as well as flight manuals and Mr. Ballough personally chastised management. But the agency closed its investigation without imposing any monetary fines on the carrier. Since then, FAA officials say headquarters has ordered closer scrutiny by inspectors of all JetBlue operations.

A scheduling breakthrough by JetBlue would set an important precedent, because the current rules have been largely unchanged for decades. While the industry’s safety record has improved dramatically over the years, airline executives and pilot union leaders have continued to spar over what regulatory changes are necessary. The process is complicated by dramatic increases in cockpit automation, ever-growing flight lengths and the extra wear on pilots who cross multiple time zones during a single flight.

Mr. Rosekind declined repeated requests for comment about the JetBlue test.

JetBlue and some of its pilots argue that longer flight shifts could actually improve the quality of life for pilots and perhaps enhance their alertness. Flying from New York to California and back in the same workday, they say, would allow crews to sleep in their own beds, enjoy better rest and avoid hotel stays at odd hours that tend to disrupt natural sleep rhythms.

Revised regulations could present JetBlue with economic advantages over carriers such as AMR Corp.’s American Airlines or UAL Corp.’s United Airlines. Those two carriers and other large airlines with long histories are constrained by union contracts sometimes calling for more-restrictive scheduling than what is allowed by the FAA.

JetBlue, which took wing six years ago and expanded rapidly and profitably despite a severe downturn in the overall industry, recently has been brought down to earth by two consecutive quarters of red ink. That prompted the carrier to throttle back its expansion on long-haul routes, add more short flights, beef up its management team and raise its fares. So far, the efforts have returned the company to modest profit, although it is expected to report a break-even third quarter next week. The airline is now the eighth largest in the U.S. by passenger traffic.

Current and former NTSB members say they were told after the fact that JetBlue had done tests on pilot fatigue. But board Chairman Mark Rosenker says he was never told that pilots flew beyond typical FAA limits. Richard Healing, who stepped down from the board last year, says JetBlue’s “arguments may have some merit,” but “they need to be validated as part of a comprehensive study” on pilot fatigue.

Capt. Dave Bushy, who championed fatigue-reducing programs as vice president of flight operations before leaving the company earlier this month for another carrier, said JetBlue and the rest of the industry “can be a lot smarter when it comes to scheduling and the use of science,” instead of just “living with 40-year-old regulations that don’t enhance the safety equation.”


Edit Your Comment

  1. TVarmy says:

    Ugh. Jet Blue used to be the COOL airline.

  2. AcilletaM says:

    What the WSJ didn’t report is JetBlue has also been testing for the past 6 months the decades old notion that you can’t fly after drinking all night.

    Boo JetBlue!

  3. ElizabethD says:

    Holy crap. One more reason not to fly unless there is no other reasonable way to get there.

    Team Amtrak!

  4. Dremagus says:

    Is it so hard to have all of the following on a flight these days?

    (1) A competent, alert, and nice crew.
    (2) A clean and safe aircraft (I’m not saying all planes are unsafe but the potential for an avoidable accident is higher that you’d like to think).
    (3) Reasonably good service for what I paid for.

  5. adblue says:

    Here’s the address for JetBlue corporate headquarters:

    118-29 Queens Blvd.
    Forest Hills, NY 11375

    I’m going to try sending a letter directly to David Neeleman, the president. I don’t want these guys shut down — I rely on them too much! — but an apology and a promise not to (knowingly) endanger passengers again doesn’t seem too much to ask.

  6. Atrocious says:

    Next month the plan is to test out a new program where tired flight crews can turn over duties to a variety of terrorists. Since they will not only be unpaid but will also have to purchase tickets under assumed identities, the airline feels this to be a tremendous revenue generator.

  7. aviatuer says:

    This story is very much overblown, and completely misses the point with respect to crew fatigue. Many airline pilots are routinely on duty for upwards of 15 hours. Unfortunately, FAA rules primarily regulate only that time spent actually *at the controls.* That’s what JetBlue had the waiver for. Ten hours, eleven hours…whatever.

    Crew fatigue is an issue, and has been for years. I ‘ve worked some brutal schedules as a pilot. But believe me, it’s not cockpit time the causes fatigue, it’s *duty time,* which includes airport layovers, delays, and the ultimate horror, something called a “continuous duty” or “stand-up” layover.

    If they are interested in a provocative story on overworked, tired pilots, I suggest the WSJ focus there. Instead we got this JetBlue non-story.


  8. srhb says:

    I hope you guys don’t think that the above picture depicts an actual JetBlue First officer asleep in-flight! JetBlue uses Airbus and the picture is definitely not of any Airbus model in existence. The picture looks more like a hoax. It’s obviously that of a small twin engine prop similar to a Baron; that being the case, this pilot is is most probably pretending to be asleep – especially since that type of plane doesn’t have all of the automation a large commercial jet has. While it does have a basic autopilot, it is not a MCDU. Furthermore, even if he was really sleeping, he does have a pilot sitting right next to him who can fly the plane on his own.