European Parliament ‘Rubber Stamps’ Duty Time Limits

 - October 14, 2013, 1:40 PM
Under new European rules, pilots can now fly no more than 11 hours a day, but pilot groups complain that loopholes could lead to 12.5-hour flights. (Photo: ArincDirect)

The European Parliament’s approval of controversial new harmonized flight and duty time limitation (FTL) rule for pilots last Wednesday came only a week after its own Transport and Tourism (Tran) committee voted against its adoption. The development concludes more than five years of work led by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Parliament members no doubt felt a great deal of pressure to rubber-stamp the European Commission’s proposed rules, based on EASA’s detailed formal “Opinion.” “This proposal is done under ‘comitology’ so no amendments can be made; it’s either a straight yes or a straight no,” Tran committee chairman Brian Simpson told attendees at the earlier hearing.

Attempts by pilot unions to push the proposal back for amendments thus failed and the FTL will almost certainly now become a regulation in European law, adoption of which EU member states must execute in short order.

The EU-FTL will “bring a series of clear safety improvements in crew protection against fatigue,” said EASA executive director Patrick Ky. “Europe now has one of the strictest FTL rules in the world.” He noted that night flight duty limits would decrease to 11 hours from 11 hours, 45 minutes, total flight time limits in 12 consecutive months would drop from 1,300 hours to 1,000 hours and the combination of standby at the airport with flight duty now cannot exceed 16 hours.

European Cockpit Association (ECA) president Nico Voorbach does not concur with Ky’s glowing assessment, however. “With this approval the EP took a step away from the ‘precautionary’ approach, ignored scientific expert advice and put passenger safety at risk,” he said. The ECA has repeatedly pointed to “loopholes” in the wording of the new rules, which could lead to 12 hour, 30 minute flights with no third pilot, as opposed to a 10-hour limit in the U.S. The association also complains that the new European rules will allow a 22-hour standby plus duty-time period.

“The rules have been rushed through… it is a victory for intransparency, commercial interests and short-sightedness,” said ECA secretary general Philip von Schöppenthau. “Europe has lost a unique opportunity to be a forerunner on flight safety.” ECA FTL expert Jon Horne, a senior first officer on Boeing 747s for British Airways, told the Tran Committee that although the EASA claimed more than 30 improvements over the current JAR Subpart Q baseline, the “patchwork of agreements and practices” now in place offers a far higher level of protection. “Compared to these, the EASA proposals are worse,” he said. The ECA protests have won the support of the European Transport Safety Council among others, but the airlines have for the most part ignored them.

Meanwhile, the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) welcomed the approval of the FTL rules. “An overwhelming majority of MEPs voted 387 to 218, with 66 abstentions, to endorse the new regulation,” it said in a statement. “Under EU law, the Commission can now adopt the new rules after the member states in the [European] Council have given their consent, expected at the meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on 18 October.”