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JetBlue Blames New Pilot Rest Rules For Its Massive Disruptions

@denschaal

Jan 06, 2014 12:00 pm

Skift Take

Airlines are going to have to do some additional pilot hiring to cope with the new pilot rest rules and inclement weather, which isn’t so out of the norm in the Northeast, where JetBlue operations are concentrated. It is hard to believe that JetBlue might not have done more to reduce the extent of the disruption that its passengers are facing over the next few days.

— Dennis Schaal

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JetBlue is resetting its schedule after massive flight cancelations and delays over the weekend, and the airline says new pilot rest rules that went into effect last week had a “major impact” on operations.

And, Airlines for America, says it’s heard anecdotally from its airline members that the new rules were “a contributing factor” in the flight cancellations and delays.

The pilot rest rules “have had a major impact on airline operations this week due to the weather situation,” JetBlue states. “As JetBlue is the leading carrier in Boston and New York, where the weather hit worst in the last few days, we also have another hit by the new pilot regulation due to the humber of delayed or cancelled flights.”

JetBlue says it is resetting its operation to get passengers to their destinations, “but it will take days, not hours.” Further cancellations are a possibility, the airline says.

“Whilst we were fully prepared for Federal Aviation Regulation 117, it was impossible to foresee airports closing down, a non-JetBlue aircraft incident at JFK causing temporary runway closure, and extreme weather conditions, which have all had a domino effect on our operations.”

Under the new FAA rules on rest, which went into effect January 4, pilots can be on duty for a maximum of 9 to 14 hours (reduced from 16) and fly the aircraft for 8 or 9 hours, depending on the time of day, without waiving the rule, which had been the norm.

In addition, pilots are required to have 30 hours of rest without interruption in a seven-day period, and 10 hours off duty before flying again (up from the previous 8 hours off in the prior 24-hour period).

When pilots reach their maximum duty time, airlines have to bring in new crews. The new rules are partly the result of the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3407, which found that the pilot or co-pilot had flunked training tests, were under-trained, and fatigued.

FlightView says there were 13,668 cancelled flights in the U.S. from January 2 to January 5.

Regarding JetBlue specifically, FlightView says 1,316 JetBlue flights have been cancelled since Thursday with the largest daily total, 402 flights, cancelled so far today, January 6.

“Not only are JetBlue flights cancelled today, but many with Boston as the destination are getting diverted to other places,” a spokesperson for FlightView says.

JetBlue says its call center is dealing with “heavy call volume, resulting in long wait times to speak to an agent.”

Kaitie Connell, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, notes that the pilot rest rules just went into effect and that this is a transition period.

“While it would be premature to speculate on the effect it has had on the airlines’ operations until the carriers report out their monthly performance to date, we have heard anecdotally from some member carriers that it was a contributing factor and we will continue to work closely with the FAA to identify specific issues related to the implementation of the rule and propose solutions in response,” Connell says.

[Update: Southwest Airlines tells Skift that the pilot-rest rules played a role in its delays and cancellations, although it doesn’t know to what degree. “We were prepared for the industry rule change but, anytime we experience irregular operations, crew legality becomes an issue,” spokesperson Brandy King said January 7. “We don’t yet have enough data to determine what delays/cancellations were attributed to (FAR) 117 as opposed to other factors but we do know it played a part.”]

Madhu Unnkrishnan, a Virgin America spokesperson, said the pilot-rest rules did not impact operations.

“Like other carriers, we’d been preparing for this for awhile,” Unnkrishnan says. “We did have delays and cancellations this weekend, but they were all due to the winter weather on the East Coast and Midwest.”

In February 2007, JetBlue faced a bevy of tarmac delays and flight cancellations because of a snowstorm that hit the Northeast. Then-CEO David Neeleman took to YouTube to apologize for the mess:

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