Flight Time Limitations: 3 Words – 50.000 Comments

The European Aviation Safety Agency is still a young organisation. But it has just marked an all-time record in Europe’s aviation safety history: its proposal for EU-wide rules on pilots’ Flight Time Limitations (FTL) – the so-called ‘NPA-2010-14’ – triggered close to 50.000 comments from stakeholders, including from numerous pilots. These 50.000 comments on what is a 244-page document compare to the Agency’s previous record of 14.000 comments on its 1000-page NPA on air operations. Will EASA – and its political masters in the European Commission – get the message?

Based on previous experience, the chances seem rather low. Before the NPA was published, in Dec. 2010, it was obvious that the text was immature, based on a flawed Impact Assessment, and disregarded widely acknowledged scientific evidence. It was also clear that EASA’s proposal would be way out of step with the parallel FTL rulemaking process in the USA where scientific evidence and safety expertise guided the work and were reflected in the US FAA’s rulemaking proposal. Despite this, Commissioner Kallas rejected calls for the NPA to be assessed by scientific experts and adapted accordingly before it was published. Time was more important than quality. The 50.000 comments should come as no surprise.

While EASA did not involve scientists during its one-year drafting process leading to the NPA publication, it eventually agreed to involve 3 scientists in its subsequent work. But the Agency’s track-record on respecting its own legal mandate, i.e. to base its FTL rules on scientific knowledge, is rather bad – at least when it comes to this NPA. It remains to be seen whether the Agency will be ‘courageous’ enough to follow the scientists’ recommendations this time, after having largely ignored the findings of its own scientific report when drafting the NPA.

Courage is what is needed. Because it was the airlines’ concerted opposition against EASA’s own report that made the Agency go ‘soft’ on science. Two months before the report had been officially published, back in Jan. 2009, the Association of European Airlines (AEA) issued a position paper trying to discredit the report’s scientific recommendations and calling upon EASA to ‘dissociate itself from the content of this study’. When looking at the content of the NPA, EASA seems to have listened carefully.

Courage is needed again. Because AEA – and the other European airline associations – can be expected to try once more to discredit  scientific input. In an internal briefing paper (GN10128) AEA states that “another remaining issue of concern is the fact that EASA has launched a tender for scientists to provide scientific evidence to support their NPA”. The note continues: “This could be dangerous depending on the scientists involved. AEA members have therefore been requested to ensure that scientists supportive to our views reply to this EASA tender”.

When the CEOs of AEA’s member companies meet EASA’s top management on 20 April, the message can be expected to be the same. Don’t change the NPA in line with scientific evidence. Because, according to AEA’s internal note, the NPA reflects most of their major lobbying aims: “The only remaining issues where AEA has not (yet) been able to achieve 100% of our AEA positions relate to some aspects of standby at home and some aspects of the 1h planned extension to the Max FDP.

Against this background, it is surprising that EASA claims its NPA to be “balanced” (see TV report: http://mediathek.daserste.de/sendungen_a-z/432744_plusminus/6877250_flugverkehr--piloten-im-sekundenschlaf--engl--versi) and based on the equal input from all stakeholders. Will 50.000 comments be sufficient to make the Agency – and the EU Commission – think again and stand up against the airlines’ lobbying? Flight safety is at stake, and Europe’s passengers will be keen to know.