In 2006, European express carriers lobbied for more flexible night Flight Time Limitations (FTL) to be part of the future EU-OPS Regulation. Now, DHL's Belgian branch "EAT" applied for a derogation allowing it to exceed the 10h30 - 11h45 limit for night flight duties - a limit that will become mandatory all over Europe in July 2008. This derogation request could have become an example for "best practices". Regrettably, this is not the case, placing the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority in a difficult situation.
Technically speaking, this derogation is a purely Belgian matter: a Belgian company applying for a derogation from Belgian FTL rules. What DHL proposes is even an improvement compared to Belgium's current rules. Why be concerned?
Firstly, DHL is expected to use the Belgian approval to subsequently obtain a Europe-wide derogation from "Subpart Q" of the EU-OPS Regulation 1899/2006. Should the Belgian CAA accept the request, the European Commission could be asked to grant a derogation under EU-OPS Art. 8.3. If the Commission - advised by EASA - gave its approval, the new night flight scheme would be available to all operators in the EU performing comparable operations, provided their home country decides so.
Secondly, being the first derogation with pan-European implications under EU-OPS, it is crucial to build "best practice", making the process sound, transparent and based on an adequate scientific basis. EAT/DHL however, chose a different route. Based on information available, its approach seems neither sound, nor transparent, let alone based on a publicly available scientific foundation. In particular, the company failed:
- To properly consult interested parties, as required under Subpart Q (1.1090, 5.1.1.) disregarding valid safety concerns raised by pilot representatives.
- To prepare - and make public - a scientific safety study addressing all relevant issues and being based on sufficient data. The study produced by a well-reputed scientific body is a valuable step into the right direction. But as EAT/DHL insists on keeping this study secret, it has not demonstrated that the study makes a solid safety case.
- To establish a meaningful Fatigue Risk Management System and to follow some of the other recommendations made by the scientists.
EAT/DHL also took a number of steps that can hardly be labelled as "best practices":
- EAT/DHL performed an internal fatigue study, apparently using Flight Data Monitoring to support their case. This study has neither been made public, nor have the employees been consulted on the use of the data.
- A poll among the company’s flight crew tried (unsuccessfully) to assess the crew's support. It only allowed for a YES-NO answer and was done without giving crews adequate information beforehand.
Given these shortcomings, the Belgian CAA has a difficult choice. Either it approves a scheme that is not mature, or it rejects it. Alternatively, it could impose strict conditions to be met swiftly to address the problematic aspects.
But also the CAA itself needs a new approach. It must exercise transparency by fully consulting interested parties and giving them access to the scientific study and DHL's Fatigue Study. Crucially, it must exercise its role as Belgium's safety regulator, ensuring that the new scheme does not cause pilot fatigue and safety risks.
Representing 38,100 pilots from 34 European countries, ECA is keen to make this derogation a success. However, if its content and process are not sound, transparent and based on an adequate scientific basis, leaving doubts about the safety-implications, ECA would not be in a position to support the derogation at EU level.