Pilots fight new EU flight-time rules

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Ahead of a vote in the European Parliament tomorrow (9 October), pilots associations and EU lawmakers have mounted a fierce campaign against new rules on flight time limitations, saying the proposed EU law would put passenger safety at risk.

If Parliament backs the proposal, the new regulation will be approved and come into force.

Following rejection of the European Commission’s proposal on flight and duty time limitations by Parliament's transport committee last month, European pilots urged Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas to modify the proposed regulation.

In a lengthy comment on the proposal, the European Cockpit Association (ECA) accused the European Commission of disregarding the “repeated warnings from the scientific community”.

The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) supports that position, urging MEPs to be very careful before approving the Commission proposal because it does "not fully and properly reflect the scientific evidence that should underpin fatigue management”.

According to experts, the draft rules pose a grave threat to the safety of pilots, passengers and cabin crew alike, as they seek streamlined EU-wide guidelines that do not follow best safety practices. An ETSC statement said that a “downward harmonisation of safety standards” would result if the new rules were implemented.

Parliament set to reject draft rules

The pilots received support in the European Parliament on 30 September when MEPs on the transport committee voted through a resolution tabled by the Greens who rejected the new rules.

Isabelle Durant, the green vice-president of the Parliament, and a substitute member of the transport committee, told EURACTIV: “We have no choice but to reject the proposal in its entirety as the issue is subject to the comitology procedure, which means that the Parliament has no power whatsoever to amend the legislation, even if it contains positive elements that could be retained.”

Lawmakers were concerned that provisions governing the time that pilots could stay awake posed unacceptable safety risks. “Scientific evidence clearly states that pilots should not spend more than 10 hours awake and – if they have to – a third pilot must be present," Durant said. "This is a rule that even the USA respects."

There was also great concern about the proposed 'stand-by' rules. "Being in stand-by for a pilot does not mean [the substitute pilot] can sleep," Durant said. "He is on call and has to be ready for a flight. It has led pilots and crew to remain awake for over 22 hours!”

Doctor Daniel Rodenstein of the sleep unit in Brussels' Saint Luc hospital says that being awake for up to 20 hours at a time dangerously increases the risk of error, adding that a 12-hour working day would be much more reasonable.

Airlines back new flight times proposal

The Association of European Airlines (AEA) disagrees, saying the proposed flight time limitations were based on many different scientific reports and resulted from intense discussions.

Negative reactions “come from trade unions” and are an “attempt to mix social and working conditions with safety issues,” the AEA told EURACTIV.

Such accusations have dismayed opponents of the proposal as for them, working conditions are intrinsically linked to safety issues, especially where pilots, truck and bus drivers are concerned.

“Fatigue kills,” Durant said.

As the vote approached, MEPs said that the European Commission was “actively lobbying” as it knew it faced a 'take it or leave it' vote.

However, pilots and their allies in the Parliament say that there could still be time to bring forward more acceptable draft legislation by January 2014.

Pilots operating in the European Union can now be on duty up to 13 hours during the day and 11 hours and 45 minutes if their shift involves night-flying, typically defined as 2 am to 4:59 am.

On 1 October 2012, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) tabled regulations to tighten existing rules, chopping up to 45 minutes off the maximum time European pilots could fly when their shifts involved nighttime hours.

Trade unions for pilots and cabin crews want to cap night duty to 10 hours.

  • 8 October : Debate in the European Parliament
  • 9 October: Vote in the European Parliament

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