The European Parliament decided in a plenary vote in Strasbourg on Wednesday (9 October) not to follow the advice of its transport committee, which had rejected the European Commission's draft law on flight time limitations in September.
With 387 votes against the proposed motion to reject the proposal, a Parliament majority backed the Commission.
“Despite the criticism this revision has raised, we believe that this proposal is a considerable improvement of the current status quo in a number of Member States and certainly better than managing separate arrangements for flying time around Europe," said Gesine Meissner, a German liberal MEP (ALDE).
"Maintaining the status quo would have not made our European sky any safer," she said in a written statement after the vote.
The proposal on flight time limitations harmonises flight and rest rules at EU level, reducing the maximum flight duty time at night from 11.45 hours to 11, the maximum number of flying hours per year from 1,300 to 1,000 and the maximum duty time (airport standby + flight) to 16 hours, instead of the 26 or even 28 currently applying in certain member states.
But critics say these measures are insufficient and disregard scientific recommendations to limit flight duty to 10 hours maximum. The 16 hours duty time has been deemed excessive by doctors and sleep experts. Beyond this limit, they argue that a third pilot should be present, as is the case in the United States.
The Greens, who had introduced the motion rejecting the draft legislation, were disappointed.
Isabelle Durant, a Belgian green MEP and one of Parliament's 14 vice-presidents, called the vote “damaging”, warning that the Commission was "playing a dangerous game".
She said Parliament had accepted to surrender any leverage over future adjustments to flight time rules, as the legislation was subject to comitology, a procedure that gives no room for parliamentary amendments, and forces the assembly to “take or leave” any future tweaks to the rules.
British Green MEP Keith Taylor also expressed his disappointment. “Pilots' unions had raised serious concerns about the proposals, which could see pilots working 22 hour shifts and having to work 7 early starts in a row. The proposal will lead to increased stress and working hours for pilots and increases passenger risk,” Taylor told EurActiv in an email.
Legislation 'tailored for airlines, not passenger safety'
The European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents pilots from all over Europe, expressed concern over the vote. Its secretary general, Philip von Schöppenthau, told EurActiv that the vote was “a shame and bad news for passenger safety”.
“The text approved [yesterday] still contains significant safety loopholes that have not been closed, such as excessively long night flight times and dangerously long combinations of standby and flight duty. As long as these holes remain wide open, and as long as scientific recommendations are deliberately ignored, the whole package remains unsafe. This text has been tailored around the airlines’ commercial needs, not around passenger safety”.
The two biggest parties in Parliament – the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) – both backed the Commission's proposal, even though many of their MEPs had previously rejected it in the transport committee.
S&D lawmakers said they could support the proposal, after having “brokered a deal between the Commission and the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF)”.
Adversaries of the deal admit that the new legislation will help those countries where safety standards are low. But they argue it will bring a “downward harmonisation” for those with good safety practices.
Meissner, however, says that “if a Member State or individual airlines want to put down better conditions they can do so”.
But such reassurances do not convince all stakeholders. In the UK for example, the British Pilots Association (BALPA) has already called on the UK government to “protect flights from dodgy backroom deals on EU safety cuts".