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opinion

Ashley Nunes is an Atlanta-based researcher in transportation safety, regulatory affairs and behavioural economics.

On Friday, Ottawa proposed changes to the nation's air safety rules. Under the new guidelines, pilot rest periods will increase and stricter limits will be placed on the length of time that a crew can be scheduled to work. According to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, this will foster greater public confidence that Canadian pilots are "fit for duty."

The move comes after vigorously lobbying by Canada's pilot unions. These organizations have, for years, lamented over the nation's supposedly outdated pilot scheduling practices. Their message? These practices are unsafe and place passengers' lives at risk. Their solution? Give pilots more down time to avoid fatigue on the job.

The proposed rules do just that. Pilots will, under these rules, work less compared to years prior and get more time off. That's great for pilots. But what about passengers? Are we really guaranteed a safer flying experience because of these rules?

Read more: Canadian pilots no longer have to fly real aircraft to keep valid licences

The safety case for managing pilot fatigue is purportedly based on scientific studies. These studies – many of which were conducted in the 1980s – examined the impact of fatigue on everything from oxygen levels in the brain to short-term memory to muscle activity. The results laid the groundwork for global air safety regulations, including those proposed by Ottawa.

Yet, despite international buy-in, how fatigue affects a pilot's flying ability remains unclear. That's because current fatigue science relies on basic laboratory tests as the measurement tool of choice. Perform well on one of these (it takes 10 minutes) and you're fine. Perform badly and you're fatigued.

How well these tests predict actual flying ability is anyone's guess. It's never been really studied. Do fatigued pilots rush through safety checks? We don't know. Do they communicate incorrectly with air traffic controllers? We don't know. Are they more likely to deviate from company procedures? We don't know.

This is worrying because technology can monitor every facet of a flight. From an airplane's height to its speed to how much gas it has in its tanks, thousands of bits of safety-related data can be, and indeed are, continuously recorded. If something is wrong, computers know about it. And if a fatigued pilot is doing something wrong, we should know about it.

The fact that we don't raises questions about the effectiveness of Ottawa's legislative efforts. That's because claims of safer skies, courtesy of the new rules, are unverifiable. The data to substantiate these claims simply doesn't exist.

There have been cases where improper rest has led to air safety incidents. For example, a weary Air Canada pilot once mistook the planet Venus for another aircraft on a collision course. To prevent the imaginary accident, the pilot forced his airplane – a Boeing 767 jetliner – into a 400-feet dive over the Atlantic. Fourteen passengers and two crew were injured.

But fatigue-related incidents have also been reported when pilots are given sufficient rest. For example, in 2009, two pilots working a 51-minute flight between the Hawaiian Islands fell asleep halfway through the flight. The airplane flew some 40 kilometres past its landing spot before the pilots woke up and turned the plane around. Investigators found that the crew had been given enough rest before flying (in fact, nearly twice the amount required by law).

A similar conclusion was reached in the aftermath of a 2013 crash in Birmingham, Alabama. Pilot unions quickly linked that crash to fatigue, arguing for more down time. But investigators noted this would not have changed the outcome. The plane would still have crashed.

Reconciling these findings is not easy. But it is necessary. Legislative efforts to improve Canadian air safety must be driven by sound science: the type of science that holds up to scrutiny. The public should demand evidence that supports legislative proposals and Ottawa should be able to provide that evidence.

More time off may make for a happier pilot. But a safer pilot? The jury is still out on that.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau has introduced legislation aimed at strengthening the rights of air travellers. The bill addresses issues around baggage, bumping, delays and seating assignments.

The Canadian Press