Researcher says EU regulators overlook flight safety risks

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A British academic who has spent hundreds of hours in cockpits studying pilots’ performance says proposed EU regulations for airplane crews overlook important safety risks, including changes in the aviation industry that mean pilots may no longer live close to where they work.

Simon Bennett, who heads the University of Leicester’s Civil Safety and Security Unit, says flight duty time rules that are due to be considered by EU decision-makers this year don’t go far enough in weighing factors such as the time pilots spend commuting to their job.

Concerns about weary pilots have prompted recent regulatory reviews in the European Union and United States, and made headlines in recent days following news reports by Dutch broadcaster KRO that pilots of Ryanair are compelled to fly when sick or exhausted or lose pay – charges that the Irish low-cost carrier denies.

Bennett said he is not accusing regulators or commercial airlines of ignoring risks, but argues they need to consider factors beyond the time that flight crews are on the clock.

“I’ve got no arguments with the regulations per se. It’s just the way they’ve been arrived at,” Bennett told EURACTIV in a telephone interview.

“The regulation under science is disembodied from the real world, and the real world includes commuting, it includes having a bad night’s sleep, it includes not sleeping at all the night before duty,” he said. “That’s what I call the lived reality of the pilot’s lifestyle.”

In a statement issued last week, Bennett urged European lawmakers to reconsider proposals made by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on flight duty times.

New EU regulations proposed

EASA has recommended 30 new regulations that agency officials say would make flying safer. The proposals, which were presented to the European Commission on 1 October, are due to go through the legislative process this year.

The recommended changes to a 2008 EU regulation deal broadly with the hours pilots and flight crews can work. The results capped three years of studies by the Cologne-based agency, which was under pressure from struggling airlines for flexibility and trade unions for tougher limits on duty hours.

Amongst its main recommendations, EASA calls for reducing the time pilots can be on duty if their shift involves nighttime flying from 11 hours and 45 minutes to 11 hours, with a nine-hour cap, if duty time involves multiple take-offs and landings that occur at night.

The proposals prescribe additional weekly rest times for pilots who have worked “disruptive schedules” – such as those involving periods of long flight delays or multiple start times.

EASA documents also show that regulators acknowledged the need for longer rest periods to "enhance crew members’ work–life balance". While acknowledging their limitations in dealing with factors outside duty, the agency’s proposals would mandate longer rest periods and rest-management training for crews.

Flight crews plan walkout

But pilots’ groups said the measures fall well short of what is needed and overlook the fatigue of night duty and long hours spent waiting for flights or sitting out delays due to weather or heavy traffic.

Trade unions representing airline employees plan a European-wide walkout on 22 January to press for shorter duty times and longer breaks.

Philip von Schöppenthau, secretary-general of the European Cockpit Association, told EURACTIV in an interview as the EASA recommendations were being released that the pilots were adamant in holding out for a 10-hour cap on night duty, an hour less than the EASA proposes, and see little room for middle ground.

The night restrictions are of particular concern, with studies showing the likelihood of accidents rising sharply the longer a pilot spends at the controls.

In November 2008, a study submitted to EASA by Mobeus 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.”

Bennett, who has worked as consultant for the aviation industry, said his assessments were independent and based on field studies – including time in flight deck jump seats – as well as interviews.

“I am committed to the industry and I am a huge enthusiast of the industry, and in my opinion, the aviation industry is under-appreciated by society. So I am coming to this safety issue with the best intention possible,” he said.

In 2011, the University of Leicester sociologist published a 230-page report citing diaries kept by pilots who described restiveness, nausea and family tensions caused by lack of sleep and erratic work hours.

‘Complex issue’

Bennett acknowledged that it is difficult for regulators to weigh factors like where a pilot lives and how far she or he must travel to work.

Factors contributing to longer commutes include the construction of new airports that require crews to travel additional distances to their duty station, consolidation within the European airline industry, and the growth of low-cost airlines that often use cheaper, regional airports.

“Clearly, it’s a very complex issue, but ultimately I’m coming at this from a safety perspective.”

The academic is urging EASA and EU officials who must approve the flight duty regulations to, “actually acknowledge that when you make regulations, you must reference the world beyond the airport perimeter.”

The European Aviation Safety Agency on 1 October 2012 published its proposal to amend the current EU rules on flight and duty time limitations and rest requirements for commercial air transport. In a statement on the proposals, EASA's Executive Director Patrick Goudou said: “These harmonised flight crew duty time rules are based on scientific evidence, risk assessment and best practice. With this opinion, EASA proves once again its commitment to make no compromise with the safety of air passengers in Europe and throughout the world."

Simon Bennett, who heads the University of Leicester’s Civil Safety and Security Unit, said in an interview: "My objective was to document, probably for the first time, in detail the pilot’s lifestyle – in other words, how pilots live their lives not only at work but also outside work because the two are connected. That was my starting point. One of the most alarming findings was how long pilots’ working days can be [and] that was partly a function of commuting times.”

Pilots operating in the EU 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 a.m. to 4:59 a.m.

Trade unions for pilots and cabin crews want to cap night duty to 10 hours, one hour less than what the European Aviation Safety Agency is expected to recommend to the European Commission.

In effect, the cabin crew can work much longer than the EU limits. Airlines can request they work an additional hour in anticipation of weather or traffic delays. Pilots also have discretion to extend their shifts by two hours if they expect delays, but typically get permission from other members of the flight crew before making such a request.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) tabled an ‘opinion’, or set of regulations, 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.

  • 22 Jan.: European pilots and aircrews plan safety walkout
  • By end of 2013: Revisions to the 2008 regulation on flight safety expected to be adopted into law
  • Mid-2015: Full implementation of new rules

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