In July 2008, when Europe started to apply, for the first time in history, a uniform set of pilot fatigue rules for all commercial air operations – the so-called “Subpart Q” – it was obvious that proper implementation and oversight would be a challenge. While in some countries few problems have been identified over the past two years, in many (if not most) countries implementation of Subpart Q led to practices that have no place in an industry committed to safety.
A first ECA review, in early 2009, showed that the new law’s introduction resulted in several EU countries reducing their pre-existing higher safety standards to the lower limits allowed by Subpart Q. ECA has also received growing numbers of reports about irregularities. ECA Member Associations were therefore invited to provide pilot rosters and OPS Manuals that violate EU law or use ‘creative’ interpretations that are incompatible with the EU’s safety objective.
While information is still coming in, data received so far shows a worrying picture. On the one side there are those operators who do not seem to understand the complexities of Subpart Q. Obviously, they are not helped by the imprecise wording of its provisions, which can leave even the most well-intentioned operator at a loss. For these cases, ECA has requested the EU Commission to urgently provide clarification through guidance material on how to correctly interpret Subpart Q.
On the other hand, there are those operators who understand Subpart Q to a level of perfection where they exploit – very skillfully – each and every loophole. The resulting rosters are of serious concern as to their potential impact on flight safety. Again, ECA has informed the Commission and requested it takes appropriate action.
It comes as no surprise that most of the extreme excesses take place in companies with a punitive management culture, little consultation of flight crew on safety issues, and sometimes even outright hostility towards any kind of staff representation.
It also is not surprising that such practices are only possible because the National Safety Authorities do not exercise proper safety oversight of their operators. This is either due to a lack of personnel and expertise, or because they prefer to look away to allow their national operators to “prosper” unhampered by European safety requirements.
Part of the problem is that neither the Commission nor EASA currently have the means and expertise to stop such practices in a timely and effective manner. The tools available today are too slow, too weak and too ineffective to stop the unscrupulous operator and to guarantee that all national authorities take their oversight role seriously. Much still remains to be done on the road to flight safety.