EU vote on flight time rules leaves pilots in dismay

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“A sad day for European flight safety” tweeted the European pilots’ association, minutes after the European Parliament rejected a motion that would have stopped new flight time limitations (FTL) rules from coming into force.

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".

The European Commission welcomed the vote in Parliament: "I am pleased with this vote which opens the way for new stricter EU-wide rules on pilot fatigue. It will bring better protection of passengers and safer working conditions for crew. This is a victory for common sense", Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said.

The European People's Party (EPP) group in Parliament also welcomed the vote saying that "the safety of passengers and pilots has always been the EPP Group’s first priority in the preparation of the new European flight time limitation Regulation. The new rules will greatly enhance this safety: if we compare the current different national legislations with the new European rules, in nearly all cases, national safety levels are maintained and in most cases improved thanks to a better flight time-rest time ratio."

The Socialists and Democrats said they supported the proposal because they had previously brokered a deal between the Commission and transport workers: "This has been a long drawn-out process with feelings running high on all sides. At the end of the day I believe the Commission proposal as it now stands should be supported so that we can ensure that Europe's excellent safety record in aviation can be maintained and strengthened", the British MEP Brian Simpson said in a statement.

However, the French Socialists in Parliament distanced themselves from the vote. In a statement, MEP Bernadette Vergnaud said that the proposal is a “threat to the safety of passengers”. She also highlighted the fact that “the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) will be free to take other decision on that matter without any political control”. “We also regret the last-minute negotiations that only brought minor improvements without giving us the time to calmly examine the results”.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) welcomed the decision of the Parliament to back the proposal: “Under the harmonisation proposals, developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency, national aviation safety regulators, such as the CAA, will have a much enhanced monitoring role of pilot fatigue - including having access to airline flight data. This will allow regulators to analyse roster and shift patterns to identify problems on specific sectors or routes.”

A point of view that British pilots don’t share – BALPA regret the vote and called on their government to reject the deal: “To date the UK Government and flight safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority have wholeheartedly supported the planned EU cuts to UK flight safety, ignored the evidence presented by both Britain's 10,000 pilots and the scientific community and failed to stand up for UK standards, which are currently the highest in Europe. British pilots are calling on the Government to look at the evidence and demand that the unscientific and unsafe new rules are voted on by the EU Council of Ministers, which includes UK Transport Ministers.”

The European Cockpit Association (ECA) has expressed strong concern and said in a press release that with this vote, the EP ignored scientific advice and put passengers at risk

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.

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