Pilots Slam Europe’s Proposed Flight Duty Limits

 - January 14, 2011, 9:30 AM
The value of rest that airline pilots can get inflight is one of the factors taken into account by proposals for new flight duty time limits. (Photo: Boeing)

Conflicting reactions to new proposals from both sides of the Atlantic on flight and duty time limits (FTL) seem to prove only that regulators and scientists just can’t win. The European Cockpit Association (ECA)–an umbrella organization of European pilot unions–has reacted furiously against the notice of proposed amendment for new FTL rules issued on Dec. 20, 2010, by the European Aviation Safety Agency. It accuses the EASA of ignoring scientific evidence and bowing to pressure from airlines to err on the side of cost control. By contrast, when the FAA issued its FTL notice of proposed amendment last year, airline bosses cried foul, calling the new rules impractical and uneconomic. U.S. pilot unions broadly welcomed the proposals.

The ECA is highly selective in its critique of the EASA proposals, for which the comment period is due to end on March 20, presumably in time to adopt a new rule in April 2012. For instance, it points to the 14-hour maximum day-time flight duty period permissible under the NPA as being one hour longer than that proposed by FAA and two hours more than that recommended by “scientific studies.” But what the ECA chooses to ignore in its public condemnation is that the NPA is built on a complex foundation of caveats that would make the 14-hour maximum very much the exception. Rather, in many cases the maximum duty period would fall below 13 hours, when limits for multiple sectors and start times are considered. Factors such as the length and quality of rest that pilots can get using crew rest areas in airliners also complicate the rules. The proposals also would impose significant limits on the amount of actual flight hours that can be logged in and around the duty periods. The EASA explicitly cautions against the temptation to compare the U.S. and European FTL proposals “in isolation.” It argues that while the two authorities have placed “a different emphasis on flight duty period limits and rest requirements,” the end result in terms of safety protection should be comparable.

Careful study of Europe’s 244-page NPA reveals that EASA officials have sought to distill more than a year of extensive scientific analysis, and blend it with the findings of an economic impact assessment. The agency wants to synthesize a common set of rules from those encompassed in Europe’s existing EU-OPS Subpart Q regulations and the conflicting national variants still enforced by some individual European Union states.

But according to the ECA, EASA has bowed to the airlines–putting their commercial imperatives ahead of the safety of passengers. The charge provoked an angry response from the Association of European Airlines (AEA), which has accused the pilot lobby of self-serving scare-mongering. “By publicly implying that some elements of these proposals are unsafe, pilot unions are abusing their role, as well as the esteem that the general public has for airline pilots,” said AEA secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus. “It is outrageous that passenger anxieties should be invoked by manipulating facts. To put it bluntly, I sometimes have the impression that the main concern of the pilot union is getting more pilots to fly aircraft so that the unions have more members.”