(Reuters) - Nearly three years after investigators first heard what they believed were yawns by the crew of a commuter plane that fell from a winter night's sky near Buffalo, the Obama administration is ready to issue a new regulation aimed at ensuring more rest for airline pilots.
The Federal Aviation Administration policy will be unveiled on Wednesday following extended delays and missed deadlines due to industry opposition over costs and scheduling.
It will overhaul outdated requirements that critics say do not begin to address basic business demands of present-day flying and the physical toll of long days and hectic work schedules on pilots.
The rule is expected to give pilots a break on scheduling to provide the best chance for uninterrupted rest, and allow the airlines flexibility to develop their own fatigue risk plans, with FAA approval.
"It's the beginning step," said Karen Eckert, whose sister, Beverly, was among the 45 passengers and four crew aboard the Colgan Air Bombardier DHC-8-400, operating as Continental Connection Flight 3407, that crashed five miles from Buffalo airport on February 12, 2009. All were killed, as was one person on the ground.
"Fatigue is the first one and it's extremely important," she said of safety improvements family members have pushed on Washington - first Congress, which ordered changes, and now the FAA. Other changes being sought would upgrade pilot qualifications, training, and crew management.
The crash raised questions about the doomed flight and about airline industry operations, especially those at short-haul feeder carriers, whose share of U.S. domestic flying is growing and now accounts for about half of such traffic. Colgan, a unit of Pinnacle Airlines, is one of these short-haul carriers.
Fatigue rules at most airlines generally exceed U.S. guidelines but problems can be overlooked by companies or left unaddressed. Provisions can be changed in contract negotiations.
Ice on the wings was first suspected in the Colgan crash, but the National Transportation Safety Board blamed crew missteps.
Although they could not prove it, investigators said the pilot and co-pilot were probably overtired and that fatigue likely degraded their performance. Investigators listening to "black box" cockpit voice recordings heard what they believed were yawns, about 20 minutes apart, by each crewmember during the hour-long flight from Newark.
They later found that the captain had been awake at least 15 hours and had experienced chronic sleep loss. The co-pilot had commuted from Seattle to New Jersey the day before and had slept only 8.5 hours in the 34 hours before the accident.
Both caught naps in the crew lounge at Newark during the day but investigators do not consider that conducive to proper rest. The safety board said Colgan had not effectively enforced its own policies on sleeping in lounges.
Fatigue, pilots and other experts said, often shows up in lapsed or incomplete procedural checks, missed radio calls or navigational readouts, or an extended period of silence in the cockpit. Late-night flying is often a contributing factor.
"Generally you see problems at the end of a long day," said Doug Pinion, an American Airlines captain who flies long-haul Boeing jets and has been a point-man for the carrier's crewmembers on fatigue.
"Everyone needs to get adequate rest. The most important thing is sleep to restore your body, and realistic limitations for how long you are on duty," he said.
Crew fatigue was a factor in 18 aviation accidents over the past 20 years, including five U.S. crashes since 1999 that killed 128 people, safety board and FAA records show.
FAA officials would not discuss the final rule ahead of its release. But other industry sources said changes were likely from the plan proposed in September 2010.
Fatigue was a priority of former agency administrator Randy Babbitt, who lost his job this month over a drunk driving charge. A former airline pilot, Babbitt had been in tough discussions with airlines and unions over the final draft, which also went through a long review by the White House.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Reuters that Babbitt's exit would not change the substance of the final rule.
The FAA proposed last year to increase minimum rest between shifts, but the plan fell short for many pilots who want a requirement that better allows for time spent travelling to and from airports. Pilots currently are allowed to work 16-hour days with half of that actually flying.
Sources familiar with FAA thinking said it will, in the final rule, recognize fundamental differences between day and night flying for the first time, and consider the impact of work load on fatigue. The measure will also establish a framework for airlines to develop risk management plans that respect their business models and recognize unique operations.
This includes scheduling, type of aircraft flown, routes and staffing.
Airlines have lobbied against provisions in the proposed rule and balked at the cost, which FAA estimated in its original proposal at $1.25 billion over 10 years. This includes expenses related to operations, scheduling, fatigue training and upgrades to rest facilities.
The rule could force carriers to hire more pilots, change flight schedules, and revamp work rules.
"We believe the rules need to be changed and we have long advocated for rules that are based on science and are proven to improve safety," the industry's leading trade group said in a statement.
Pilots and industry experts agree that there is "no bright line" to achieve optimum safety. For instance, pilots flying bigger jets are concerned about scheduling for long-haul flights. Those in cargo planes operate mainly at night, while regional pilots take off and land multiple times a day.
Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation and a former FAA official, noted that the updated regulations will have more credibility because they were based on sleep research and were not as influenced by pilots' union negotiations.
"It's going to make more sense and become the standard as opposed to labour agreements that have been laid on top of these things for years. It's more appropriate," Voss said. "Safety is not what you want to have negotiated along with pay and seniority."
Bob Mann, an industry consultant and former airline executive, said the rule change would cause airlines and pilots the most difficulties when flight and pilot duty schedules are interrupted by delays, and crewmembers work longer.
Reporting By John Crawley; Editing by Gary Hill