Flight Safety – EASA Not Yet on Track

19 March was the deadline for stakeholders from across Europe to submit comments on EASA’s latest proposal for future EU pilot fatigue rules. About 200 stakeholders – including ECA and its Member Associations – made use of this opportunity. The challenge for the Agency is now to do what it avoided doing in its latest draft: to comply with its own legal mandate by firmly basing its rules on medical and scientific evidence. Having solicited three independent scientific experts, EASA knows very well that its proposal still goes against scientific evidence on a number of key points. The dilemma is that aligning the rules with what science shows to be safe would put the Agency on a collision course with Europe’s powerful airline lobby.

This dilemma is most obvious when looking at three examples, where the airlines claim scientifically-based limits would raise their costs, whereas EASA’s proposal would allow pilots to fly dangerously tired.

The first one is night flights, a critical period for pilot fatigue. Based on decades of research, each of the three scientific reports, concludes that flying at night should be limited to 10 hours to prevent critical levels of fatigue and hence potential safety risks. Nonetheless, the Agency opted for 11hours – fully in line with the airlines’ requests.

The second example regards standby, where pilots and cabin crew must stay available for a flight when called by their airline. Standby is a vital element for the airlines to remain flexible. However, EASA’s proposal allows a pilot to land an aircraft after 20 hours of duty and after having been awake for up to 22 hours. How could this be considered reasonable and safe?

The third example concerns long work days with multiple take-offs. Science shows fatigue increases with the length of the working day and with workload, such as multipletake-offs and landings. The three scientists therefore conclude that the totald aily flight duty time must be reduced as of the 2nd take-off. But EASA requirest his only as of the 3rd one – in line with the airlines’ requests.

Beyond these clear examples where EASA disregards scientific recommendations, another basic principle has not been respected: the ‘precautionary principle’. According to it, whenever scientific evidence is insufficient or inconclusive, and where there is a risk of negative effects, such as on passenger safety, a cautious approach should be taken by choosing the safest option. And here too, EASA has not followed this basic EU principle.

Therefore, if EASA does not change its proposal, a simple question will arise: who takes the responsibility when a fatigue-related accident occurs? Is it EASA who knowingly submitted to the Commission, EU Member States and the European Parliament a proposal that deviates from science and disregards the precautionary principle? Or is it the EU Member States who at the end of this year will have to approve the new rules?

Last month, EU Transport Ministers informally discussed the EASA rules. Several Ministers expressed their concern about the fact that pilot fatigue is a reality already today in Europe’s cockpits, and that EASA must take due account of scientific knowledge. But, there are still EU governments who have not yet woken up to the real safety risks of dead tired pilots. Nor have they woken up to the fact that, ultimately, the fingers will be pointed at them if they failed to take their responsibility of providing Europe’s travelling public with safe, science-based fatigue rules.