Scientific Report Shows Need to Swiftly Revise EU Pilot Fatigue Rules

When back in 2006 Europe's Flight Time Limitation (FTL) rules were enshrined in the "EU-OPS" Regulation's Subpart Q, the EU legislator acknowledged that these rules are not based on scientific ground as to their ability to protect against fatigue-related safety risks. The legislator therefore requested a scientific and medical study of these rules. It also mandated the EU Institutions to amend Subpart Q in line with the study's results, and to do so "without delay". Despite resistance from the airlines, this study has now been carried out and published. It demonstrates a clear need to revise Subpart Q. However, strong resistance is building up to translating the study's findings into strengthened, science-based FTL rules that Europe's travelling public deserves.

Published on 22 January, the study puts doubts on the current FTL rules' ability to adequately protect passengers against safety risks stemming from fatigued pilots. Labelling some of these rules as simply "unacceptable" the group of scientists who carried out the work makes a list of recommendations on how to change Subpart Q. Among others they conclude that:

  • the currently allowed maximum daily flight duty period of 13-14 hours should be reduced, as it "exceeds reasonable limits" and is "not in keeping with the body of scientific evidence";
  • the maximum of 11:45 hours night duty should be reduced to 10 hours, because of the particularly fatiguing nature of night work;
  • the practice of 3 consecutive 60-hour weeks (i.e. 180 duty hours in 21 days) needs to be stopped by setting an additional limit of 100 duty hours within 14 consecutive days (i.e. an average of 50 hours/week).

Given the strong nature of some of the study's findings, EASA and the European Commission would be well-advised to kick-start a process that allows for a swift change in Europe's FTL rules. Unfortunately, quick progress is unlikely to happen.

The EU-OPS Regulation requires that proposals to amend Subpart Q are tabled without delay. However, the Commission does not seem ready to make legislative proposals anytime soon. Instead, it is waiting for EASA to assess the study report and to prepare EASA Air Operations rules for FTL, taking into account the scientists' finding. Quite regrettably - and in spite of having had 4 months to assess the study - the Agency did not take it into account when issuing its NPA on Air Operations (see separate article), on 30 January.

Obviously, EASA is not in a comfortable situation. On the one hand, the Agency has scientific evidence at hand showing a need to change FTL rules; and a legal obligation - by its own Basic Regulation - to take this evidence into account. On the other hand, it is under severe pressure from the airlines, who have tried to discredit the study as "flawed science" carried out by "biased" scientists; the airlines object to subsequent legislative changes.

Caught in this dilemma, EASA decided to refrain from any sensitive decisions, at this stage. Instead it announced a new "rulemaking task" to deal with the study's findings and recommendations, including a Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) to weigh the safety benefits against economic costs and other considerations.

While ECA fully supports a thorough rulemaking process, there is serious concern that those who are lobbying against the study will use this process to delay progress towards science-based FTL rules. At times where the economic downturn and growing competition exert severe pressures, investments in flight safety might soon be under attack, too. With pilot fatigue contributing to 15-20% of all fatal aviation accidents caused principally by human error, and with air crews being able to perform their duties safely only if they are sufficiently alert, it would seem only natural to invest in scientifically based FTL rules. ECA believes the regulator should act now to give Europe's passengers the confidence that they are adequately protected when boarding an airplane.