Applying Science to Europe's Pilot Fatigue Rules: Delaying Tactics or Negligent Denial?

"Which Future for Flight Time Limitation Rules in Europe?" was the subject of a "lunch seminar" organised by the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), on 31st March. It follows the publication of an EASA-sponsored independent scientific study on the EU's current Flight Time Limitation (FTL) rules - a study that "recommends legislative changes. The Seminar demonstrated the legal imperatives to amend the current rules and the scientific evidence for doing so. Regrettably, it also showed that large parts of Europe's airline industry live in a state of denial as to the need to apply science to pilot fatigue rules, and that there is a lack of political will by the EU Institutions to act decisively.

The objective of the seminar was to answer a number of questions raised by the study's publication, especially what the next steps should be. Panellists and representatives from the European Parliament, European Commission, national Civil Aviation Authorities, the Scientific Community, airlines and crews debated this aviation safety issue, ably chaired by David Learmount of the Flight International magazine.

While ECA President Capt. Martin Chalk argued in favour of swiftly applying the new scientific evidence to Europe's FTL rules - as mandated by EU legislation and new ICAO requirements - many of the airline representatives took the opposite view. They stressed that EASA's scientific study had been premature, was carried out in too short of a period, and that its recommendations would make Europe's airlines uncompetitive.

Interestingly, the study's results would bring Europe's FTL rules close to the British CAP-371 FTL scheme. This scheme has been developed over decades, based on operational experience, scientific knowledge, and in partnership with airlines and pilots. And although CAP-371 is among the strictest FTL schemes in Europe, British Airways, easyJet and many other UK airlines are among the most competitive in Europe. Hence, the scientific study's impact on Europe's airlines might be much smaller than often claimed. - This is certainly one of the conclusions one can draw from the presentation made by the UK Civil Aviation Authority at the ETSC event.

Against this background, it is highly regrettable that the EU Institutions seem to be in no hurry to act. While the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had chosen not to participate in the seminar's panel, it was up to the Commission representative to show the way forward. Unfortunately, the way forward is unconvincing and shows a lack of political will to make quick progress on this important safety issue.

The Commission announced what everybody already knew: EASA will open a new rule-making procedure to assess the need to integrate scientific knowledge into future EASA FTL rules, based on a Regulatory Impact Assessment, and to recommend legislative changes if necessary. A process that will take several years to be completed and - in ECA's view - runs a high risk of failure, given the strong airline opposition against any changes. Interestingly, the Commission clarified that it has no intention to amend the current EU FTL legislation ("EU-OPS Subpart Q"), despite being obliged - by that same legislation - to do so.

Several years of further assessments and discussions also risk perpetuating the legal vacuum that exists at EU level, as regards the areas not covered by the FTL rules of Subpart Q. On several of these "black holes", the scientific study makes clear recommendations, or at least provides guidance as to the way forward. As one national Authority pointed out at the ETSC seminar, the vacuum of these "black holes" needs urgent filling, with 14 EU countries having no clear laws on these key fatigue-related issues.

The ETSC seminar was another demonstration for the need to swiftly follow up upon the study, which shows that some of today's pilot fatigue rules are insufficient and potentially unsafe. As ECA pointed out at the seminar: "We do have latest scientific evidence available. And we must act upon this. Not doing so would mean deliberately turning a blind eye on an important safety hazard. Let's not wait until the next fatigue-induced accident!"