The

Federal Aviation Administration

will enforce a long-ignored requirement that pilots get at least eight hours of rest before flying, the

Allied Pilots Association

said. It's about time.

The move comes three days after the crash of

American Airlines

Flight 1420 in Arkansas. The

AMR

(AMR)

unit's plane was flown by a crew that had been on duty almost 13 1/2 hours.

The

Air Transport Association

and most major airlines have opposed enforcement of the 1985 regulation because complying will boost costs. Drew Engelke, the communications chairman for the pilots group, said that once the change is made, probably next week, airlines will have 120 days to fully comply. As of today, only three companies are considered to be in full compliance:

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Caleres, Inc. Report

and freight carriers

DHL

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and

United Parcel Service

.

The regulation, which states that pilots must have at least eight hours of rest in the 24 hours before flight duties end, has never been enforced by the FAA. For years, pilot groups -- led by the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents the pilots at American Airlines -- have pushed for enforcement. Under the current regime of nonenforcement, a pilot could conceivably be up for some 27 consecutive hours: Let's say he was on reserve and woke up at 7 a.m. Called at 5 p.m. to pilot a flight that departed at 8 p.m., he could then be scheduled for another 12 hours of duty after arriving at the airport.

This spring, efforts at promoting enforcement were racheted up a notch, with the pilots accusing the FAA of colluding with the ATA, the lobbying group that represents the major airlines. The airlines have taken the stance that pilot fatigue is not an issue. Of course, the industry group also says compliance would cost its members hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a meeting this morning with APA officials, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey confirmed that the agency was set to go ahead with a policy of enforcing full compliance with the rule, Engelke said.

Continental, the only passenger airline currently in full compliance, estimates that pilot costs have risen 2% a year as a result of the changes, according to the

Independent Association of Continental Pilots

. Continental uses a two-group reserve system to comply.

Airlines will, no doubt, kick and scream about the FAA's decision.

For one reason, airlines are in a pinch in terms of reduced numbers of pilots. They will be hard-pressed to comply, particularly in this season of heavy air travel. (Pilots at many airlines are already working maximum schedules, and some have been called to active duty for Kosovo.)

While the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 may not be related to the crew-rest issue, there are other fatigue-related questions associated with the crash. The pilots on that flight had been on duty longer than 13 hours when the plane ran off the runway. But the more important issue is that the pilots had been flying for 7 hours 59 minutes when the plane landed. (FAA regulations limit actual flying time to eight hours.)

The question is, how far are the airlines pushing federally mandated limits on duty and flying time?

I suspect we'll see the agency more closely scrutinizing the FAA airlines' crew-scheduling procedures as a result of this crash.

From a passenger's point of view, the news couldn't be better.

Holly Hegeman, based in Dallas, pilots the Wing Tips column for TheStreet.com. At time of publication, Hegeman held no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site at

www.planebusiness.com . While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback at

hhegeman@planebusiness.com.