EU Adopts Flight-Time/Duty-Time Limitations

Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, February 2005, p.34

European pilots express safety concerns. 

Airline pilots in Europe are disappointed with a recent decision by the European Council of Ministers to adopt flight- and duty-time rules that many feel are unsafe and have no scientific basis. In December 2004, the Council approved the measure in a move to standardize flight-time/duty-time rules across the European Union.

European airline pilots critical of the legislation fear that it will lead to liberalizing flight-time limitations in line with EU countries with less restrictive limits. British politician Brian Simpson, a former member of the European Parliament who chaired the assembly's Transportation Committee, first proposed the legislation. He asserts that the new EU provisions would only set maximum limits above which pilots cannot be asked to work and that the move would not affect those countries, such as the United Kingdom, that already have more conservative rules. 

"At the moment, we have 15 different systems, and we're trying to bring them all under one European Union umbrella," says Simpson. "British pilots have some of the best rules as far as working time is concerned, and nothing stops them from having the same system that they have now." He says that countries that have concerns about the more lenient flight-time/duty-time limitations can refuse to adopt them. The British government has said that it does not plan to change its own regulations. 

Many European airlines have already responded to the new legislation, saying that it will not affect the way they do business. Easyjet, Virgin Atlantic, and British Airways are among them. In a public statement, British Airways said: "While we support EU attempts to harmonize pilot hours across Europe, our own industrial agreements will remain in place. There will not be any change to our pilots' working conditions." 

But many airline industry experts feel that market competition will compel European countries to adopt the new EU rules, allowing airlines to require pilots to fly under circumstances that many feel are hazardous. Pilots unions, which fear that their members will be required to fly when their performance has degraded to an unacceptable level, say that the new rules would increase the risk of fatigue and could result in disaster. 

"The new flight-time rules, as currently proposed, have a number of provisions that exceed limits that have been scientifically demonstrated to cause fatigue," says ALPA's first vice-president, Capt. Dennis Dolan, who is also president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations, which represents more than 100,000 pilots in more than 90 countries. 

"These rules," Capt. Dolan says, "need to be subjected to a thorough scientific review before they are implemented." 

Scientists and medical experts have questioned the way that policymakers determined flight-time hours, some suggesting that the mental concentration of fatigued crew members could be equivalent to that of people whose blood-alcohol level would be illegal for driving in some jurisdictions. The legislation calls for a scientific review to be conducted over a period of 3 years after the law is implemented, but many stakeholders feel that lawmakers are putting the cart before the horse. 

The British Air Line Pilots Association has warned that airline pilots who are asked to fly hours that are unsafe will refuse to fly. BALPA says that the legislation is poorly conceived and was drafted by politicians and civil servants who lack knowledge about the complexities of flight-time/duty-time issues. 

"We take our responsibility for public safety very seriously," says BALPA's chairman, Capt. Mervyn Granshaw. "While the government has said that the new rules won't change anything for U.K. airlines, we have no confirmation of this, or of how long such a promise will last." 

Since 1989, there have been several attempts to harmonize flight-time limitations across the European Union, but all have failed due largely to differences in regulations among member countries, as well as competing business and political interests. 

Some pilot groups in the United States and Canada have been concerned that efforts may be made in the future to harmonize U.S., Canadian, and European flight-time/duty-time regulations, opening the door to more-lenient standards globally. ALPA is monitoring this situation closely.