The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is due to table recommendations to tighten existing rules, chopping up to 45 minutes off the maximum time European pilots can fly when their shifts involve nighttime hours.
The proposed 11-hour cap is among several safety suggestions due to be handed to the European Commission to strengthen a 2008 regulation.
But the European Cockpit Association (ECA) contends the nighttime duty recommendation falls well short of what is needed. They base their criticism on medical and scientific studies of pilots and cabin crews who work long hours that typically exceed a normal shift for an office or service worker as well as coach and railway operators.
The existing law on flight duty represents “a typical European comprise” between national and pressure group interests, said Philip von Schöppenthau, secretary-general of ECA. He added that the emerging recommendations are an improvement over current EU standards but still fall short of what the pilots and cabin crew trade unions want.
ECA calls for a 10-hour flight limit for night duty, an hour less than what EASA’s draft proposal, and sees little room for middle ground. “Can you compromise on safety?” said Nico Voorbach, president of ECA, which represents 38,000 pilots in Europe. “I don’t think you should do that through legislation.”
The draft standards for flight crews follow an 18-month review of the earlier EU regulation and cover other duty periods as well. But the night restrictions are of particular concern, with studies showing the likelihood of accidents rising sharply the longer a pilot spends at the controls.
The debate pits pilots and other members of the flight crew against their employers, which seek more flexibility in times of inclement weather and congestion when longer shifts may be needed. Currently, airlines can ask pilots to work extra time and an airplane captain can use her or his own discretion to work additional hours when delays are anticipated.
Most airlines operate under restrictions carved out in trade union contracts, and some EU national governments impose tighter restrictions than those called under EU law.
The 2008 regulation on flight safety gave more muscle to EASA over aircraft operations, crew standards and safety training. It also called for a review of the flight duty hours to address trade union concerns.
Work hours depends on the time of day a pilot goes on duty and how many flight sectors - from one destination to another - are flown. Night duty generally means anytime the flight crew is working between 2 a.m. and 4:59 a.m.
In November 2008, a study submitted to EASA by MOEBUS Aviation consultancy in Zürich argued that pilots can lose awareness after 10 hours and recommended flight duty periods for crew “should not exceed 10 hours overnight.”
EASA: Proposals improve safety
But an EASA working group representing national regulators, airplane crews and the airlines, rejected the 10-hour limit in favour of an 11-hour standard for duty starting times between 5 p.m. and 4:59 a.m. The EASA recommendation also removes the possibility of one-hour extensions for night duty.
“The draft rules on flight time limitations are intended to avoid crew fatigue by introducing limitations to the way crews can be scheduled by airlines,” EASA said in a written response to questions from EurActiv. “They clearly provide safety improvements to the existing regulation including reductions in night time flying, increases in weekly rest, and new operator responsibilities.”
Airline industry groups including the Association of European Airlines and the European Regions Airline Association had earlier called for the current standards to remain in effect.
In May, airline employees picketed outside EASA’s headquarters in the German city of Cologne, calling for the agency’s draft recommendation to be changed from 11 to 10 hours. Schöppenthau now believes that the EASA proposal will be adopted by the Commission and Council without public input, since the European Parliament cannot amend the flight proposals that would take effect in 2015.
“What we expect at the end of the month is that it [the draft] will not protect the safety of the passengers,” Schöppenthau told a news conference in Brussels.