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Flight attendants to get more rest time under a new FAA rule

Acting Federal Aviation Administrator Billy Nolen holds up at a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport a new FAA rule calling for longer rest times for airline flight attendants between flights.
Andrew Harnik
Acting Federal Aviation Administrator Billy Nolen holds up at a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport a new FAA rule calling for longer rest times for airline flight attendants between flights.

Airlines will need to provide flight attendants with at least 10 hours of rest time in between work shifts, the same as amount of time as pilots, under a new rule announced Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The announcement of the extra hour of rest comes after a rough two-and-a-half years for flight attendants, who have had to deal with a sharp increase in unruly passenger incidents during the pandemic, including a rising number of verbal and physical attacks on them.

Current rules require airlines to give flight attendants at least nine hours of rest in between shifts, but it can be as little as eight hours in certain circumstances. When factoring in travel time to and from airports and overnight accommodations, that can leave flight attendants working on as little as five or six hours of sleep.

"I can tell you firsthand that well-rested crew members are important to safety," said acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen, a former airline pilot, in announcing the signing of the new rule at a news conference at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport.

"As any pilot can tell you, we cannot fly the plane without the safety expertise and support of flight attendants," Nolen added. "Flight attendants are trained to take action during emergencies, administer first aid, conduct evacuations, (and) manage medical emergencies.

"And as we've seen too often recently, they are on the front lines of responding to unruly passengers who could threaten the safety of the flight and other passengers," he said.

More than two dozen flight attendants and their union representatives joined Nolen at Reagan National for the announcement, with many noting that fatigue among flight attendants has long been a problem in the airline industry.

"This was a long time coming," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines. "This was a safety risk and a loophole that we had to close."

Nelson says fatigue and health studies have "determined that not only was fatigue rampant among our ranks ... but the lack of rest was contributing to health problems," including increased risk of cancer, as well as cardiac and respiratory issues.

And Nelson says the pandemic has significantly increased stress and fatigue among flight attendants, saying they "have to deal with longer days and shorter nights, with the reduction in schedules throughout this pandemic, and also all of the combative passengers they've had to face on not enough rest."

While some regional airlines are struggling with a shortage of flight attendants, as well as pilots and other staff, the new rule is not expected to stretch airline staffing so thin as to lead to flight delays and cancellations. Airlines across the industry have ramped up hiring over the last year to meet the a surge in air travel demand.

The new 10-hour rest rule goes into effect in 90 days, and comes as several airlines, including American, Southwest, and United, are in the midst of negotiating new union contracts with their flight attendants.

Flight attendant unions have been lobbying for increased rest time for decades, but they were left out of legislation that increased the minimum amount of rest time for pilots several years ago.

Congress finally mandated that the FAA develop a regulation increasing the minimum amount of rest time for flight attendants in the 2018 reauthorization act, but the Trump administration never did. The Biden administration proposed the new rule last fall, with the FAA citing reports that there was the "potential for fatigue to be associated with poor performance of safety and security related tasks."

In public comments on the proposal, the industry group Airlines for America, which represents the seven largest U.S. airlines, said the 10-hour rest requirement could sharply increase labor and training expenses and could cost its members more than $750 million over 10 years.

In a statement Tuesday, the group said the safety of all crew members and passengers is the industry's top priority.

"Having rested and alert flight attendants who are prepared to carry out their responsibilities, including cabin safety and other duties, is critical to this goal," the group said. "This is why we continue to support scientifically validated and data-driven countermeasures to prevent fatigue."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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