European Union’s common flight-time limits draw pilot ire

 - January 29, 2007, 9:40 AM

Last month the European Union (EU) Council of Transport Ministers and the European Parliament finally agreed on new common flight time limitations (FTL) for commercial operations. But the new standards have provoked an angry response from pilot unions for being unsafe and for allowing too much latitude for individual EU member states to continue imposing their own limits.

Overall, the new rules–which will form Subpart Q of the long-awaited EU-OPS version of the existing JAR-OPS 1 operating regulations–are not radically different from the FTL standards that most European national civil aviation authorities already enforce. However, detailed changes to the FTL framework will generally result in extended flight duty times and shorter rest periods, said opponents of the change.

Subpart Q has been the subject of bitter and complex arguments among national authorities, aircraft operators and aircrew representatives over the past five or six years. The new rules reserve for member states the right to adhere to their own FTL standards for at least three years as long as these are within the minimum and maximum levels the EU document establishes. They also allow national governments to make exceptions for operators with the approval of the European Commission (EC).

The main elements of Subpart Q are:
• No more than 190 duty hours in any 28 consecutive days and no more than 60 duty hours in any seven consecutive days.
• A limit of 900 block time hours in a calendar year and no more than 100 block hours in any 28 consecutive days.
• A maximum of 1,800 hours of duty time per year.
• A maximum daily flight duty period (FDP) of 13 hours, to be reduced by 30 minutes for each sector from the third sector onwards up to a maximum total reduction of two hours (subject to amendments according to the degree to which the FDP falls within the crew’s prevailing window of circadian low).
• FDPs can be extended by up to one hour, subject to various conditions. FDPs that start between 10 p.m. and 4:50 a.m. are restricted to 11 hours 45 minutes.
• The minimum rest before starting an FDP from home base must be at least as long as the preceding duty period or 12 hours (whichever is greater).
• For FDPs starting away from base the minimum rest is 10 hours, with the operator allowing for eight hours of sleep in this time.
• Minimum rest periods are to be increased periodically to a weekly rest period of 36 hours, including two local nights so that there will never be more than 168 hours between the end of one weekly rest period and the start of the next.

Pilots Criticize New Rule
“Typically, pilots will now more fly more than 12 hours more often and most rest periods will be reduced,” argued Keith Bill, an official with the British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA). The group has said that if its members are asked to fly hours that they consider to be unsafe they will refuse to take off.

The European Cockpit Association echoed the criticism, asserting the new rules are “incomplete” and fail to “take into consideration the latest medical and scientific research to avoid pilot fatigue compromising flight safety.” The pan-European professional pilots group pointed to studies showing that fatigue levels after flying more than 10 hours at night are equivalent to the impairment caused by a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent.

But the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) insisted that the new rules are not lax and accused opponents of the rule of putting industrial issues ahead of safety concerns. The group, which has always been a staunch critic of EU officials for failing to impose uniform standards, praised the new rules for allowing national differences to continue.

“National authorities remain free to impose lower-level, more detailed restrictions, in consultation with the operator, to tailor their company regulation to their operational circumstances,” declared ERA director general Mike Ambrose. “The EU rules are an essential first step toward more detailed harmonization in due course, subject to applied scientific evidence within three years of adoption.”

BALPA has demanded a written commitment from the UK Civil Aviation Authority that it will retain its existing FTL standards as permitted by Subpart Q. At press time it had not received any response from British officials.