A Europe-wide action day entitled Dead Tired! saw pilots and cabin crew representatives call on the Commission to swiftly take into account the recommendations of a recent scientific study on flight time limitations published by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
Depending on which airline they work for, pilots can fly up to 14 hours per day and cabin crew members can be assigned a daily duty of 15 hours, according to the European Cockpit Association (ECA) and the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF).
Scientific opinion cited by EASA say these working hours are "excessive" and should be reduced to a maximum of 13 hours per day. Flight crew can be assigned to work 180 hours in 21 days - allowing three consecutive working weeks of 60 hours, while scientific advice suggest a limit of 100 hours in 14 consecutive days.
Philip von Schöppenthau, ECA secretary general, said EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani "lacks political will" to push the issue forward and asked EASA to act.
While increasing competition in aviation and the current economic crisis pressure airlines to use their flight crews more intensively, they stressed that this should not be done at the expense of passenger safety.
Science 'flawed', airlines say
However, airline have disputed claims from pilots and cabin crew. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) has argued that the science behind the EASA-commissioned study on flight time limitations is "flawed" and is not supported by the delivery of "safe operation over many years and millions of flights".
According to the AEA, if the study's recommendations for new flight time limitations were implemented, airlines would need to employ 15-20% more pilots and many direct long-haul services would become too costly to operate.
Asked how many more pilots were needed to ensure continued service under stricter flight time rules, ECA President Martin Chalk said it was impossible to tell but that things could be improved by rescheduling flights and leaving more room for rest between the flights as well. "But in any case," Chalk said, "I'd rather have it cost money than the alternative".
EU agency to issue new rules by mid-2011
Daniel Hoeltgen, head of communications at the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), dismissed the flight crew action day as unions "jumping the gun".
"Unions are positioning themselves for a debate that is still to happen between them and airlines," he told EurActiv, adding that EASA "will not get drawn into this debate," which he says is essentially a dispute between unions and airlines.
Hoeltgen said EASA will issue a draft proposal for new flight time limitation "by this time next year". A blueprint for new rules should be ready for mid-2011 after a public consultation "so that member states can implement everything by April 2012," he added.
The agency also said that the scientific study is just one element to be taken into account in the drafting of new flight time limitation rules. Others include a review of current airline practices and an assessment of international Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS), which are yet to be conducted.
EASA also stressed that the conclusions of the scientific study "need to be fully evaluated not only in terms of potential impact on flight safety, but also as regards to all relevant economic, social and environmental aspects, before they are transferred into concrete legislative proposals".
Francois Ballestero, political director of the European Transport Federation (ETF), insisted that EASA is responsible for safety and that the regulator should stick to its mandate and not start calculating costs.