Voting amid a flurry of pilot fatigue studies and flight crew surveys, the European Parliament has approved a plan intended to strengthen and standardize flight and duty time limitations (FTL) and rest requirements for pilots and cabin crewmembers.
Parliament’s support for the new plan took the form of a vote in early October in which it rejected — 387–218, with 66 abstentions — a recommendation from its own Transport and Tourism Committee to disapprove the package of changes. The committee had sought to return the matter to the European Commission (EC) to develop an alternative package with greater protections against crew fatigue.
“Every single national safety regulator supported these measures,” Brian Simpson, chairman of the committee and a supporter of the plan approved by Parliament, said during the parliamentary debate.
The changes will “bring a series of clear safety improvements in crew protection against fatigue,” according to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which developed the plan.
European Union (EU) Vice President Siim Kallas praised Parliament’s vote as “a victory for common sense.”
But critics, including pilot organizations, said the new requirements will not do enough to limit pilot fatigue.
The measure includes provisions to reduce the allowable length of night flight duty to 11 hours, down from 11 hours and 45 minutes; to reduce allowable flight time in 12 consecutive months to 1,000 hours, down from 1,300 hours; and, twice each month, to increase weekly rest by 12 hours — to two days, up from one-and-a-half days. In addition, combined airport standby time and flight duty time will be limited to 16 hours; current policies differ among member states, some of which impose no limit. Another provision will allow up to five days of rest at home base in case of flights involving “significant time zone crossing”; current provisions allow two days of rest or, in some member states, less.
The effort to modify FTL regulations began more than five years ago, EASA said, noting that the agency will now begin working with representatives of pilots, cabin crews, airlines and national aviation authorities on details of implementing the changes.
The next step is for the EC to formally enact the regulations, which will begin to take effect at the end of the year and will become fully applicable in 2015.
EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said Parliament’s vote means that “Europe now has one of the strictest FTL rules in the world.” His agency will “continue to pursue its objective to promote the highest safety standards in civil aviation.”
Before the vote in Parliament, Kallas, a leading proponent of the changes, complained that opponents had invoked “misleading scare stories and false claims” in their campaign against the new regulations.
But both advocates of the newly approved package of changes and critics said they were motivated by safety concerns and a desire to limit fatigue in the cockpit.
The European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents 38,000 pilots in national pilot associations in 37 European states, complained that Parliament’s support for the changes was “not a ‘victory for common sense’” but rather “a victory for in-transparency, commercial interests and short-sightedness.”
Philip von Schöppenthau, secretary general of the ECA, added, “The rules have been rushed through the EU Parliament after the … transport committee firmly rejected them. Europe has lost a unique opportunity to be a forerunner on flight safety, to have safe, science-based rules, based on best practices.”
The ECA said the new rules are plagued by “safety loopholes” that could actually allow night flights of 12 hours and 30 minutes and situations in which pilots complete flights after being awake for 22 hours or more.
“With this approval, the [Parliament] took a step away from a precautionary approach, ignored scientific expert advice and put passenger safety at risk,” ECA President Nico Voorbach said.
The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) asked the government in the United Kingdom not to approve the measure, which BALPA says represents a weakening of existing U.K. safety standards.
The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), however, said that it “welcomed a decision by the European Parliament to support harmonised flight time limits for pilots across Europe and give regulators far greater oversight of fatigue.”
The CAA added that, under the new regulations, national aviation authorities will have an enhanced role in monitoring pilot fatigue, and will have access to relevant airline flight data.
“This will allow regulators to analyse roster and shift patterns to identify problems on specific sectors or routes,” the CAA said.
CAA Chief Executive Andrew Haines added, “Pilot fatigue is a real risk in the aviation industry, and we take the management of fatigue very seriously. Fatigue has multiple causes and must be managed in a practical, hands-on way, not simply by asking airlines and pilots to comply with a set of timetables. Responsibility for managing fatigue is three-fold: effective regulation, proactive management by airlines and professional behaviour and reporting by pilots.”
The CAA also said that it plans a research project to increase understanding of the causes of fatigue.
Organizations representing European airlines praised Parliament’s approval of the new regulations.
The Association of European Airlines (AEA) characterized the vote as a “crucial milestone in Europe’s aviation safety.”
AEA Acting Secretary General Athar Husain Khan noted that the AEA “has been constantly supporting the proposal” and credited members of the European Parliament with recognizing that “one harmonized set of rules for the common aviation market will benefit passengers’ safety.”
Simon McNamara, director general of the European Regions Airline Association, called the Parliament’s action “excellent news.”
Admitting to Fatigue
Parliamentary action followed the publication of a number of reports on fatigue among airline pilots.
One of the most recent was a report on a 2012 survey of Portuguese airline pilots that said that more than 90 percent reported having made fatigue-related mistakes in the cockpit, and two-thirds said that they had more than once been so tired that they should not have been at the controls (Table 1).1
The report, published in the August issue of Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, was based on responses to a survey that was distributed to the total population of 1,500 commercial airline pilots working for Portuguese airlines. Researchers obtained what they considered to be 456 valid responses from survey recipients who were commanders (captains) or first officers between the ages of 20 and 65 who were on active duty and had flown during the previous six months.
Although they admitted having been fatigued in the cockpit, 82 percent of those questioned said they had never reported themselves as “unfit for flight as a result of accumulated fatigue,” and 11 percent said they had done so only once, the report said.
Pilots also were asked to assess their fatigue using the nine-item Fatigue Severity Scale, developed to evaluate fatigue associated with a multitude of medical disorders. Pilots who flew medium- and short-haul flights — those less than six hours long with multiple segments — reported higher levels of fatigue than those who flew long-haul flights — those lasting longer than six hours but typically consisting of no more than two segments, the report said.
An earlier collection of pilot fatigue studies — assembled by the ECA in its 2012 Barometer on Pilot Fatigue2 — concluded that “pilot fatigue is common, dangerous and an under-reported phenomenon in Europe. … It is more widespread than expected, and, at the same time, it is significantly underreported by pilots themselves.”
The document cited studies conducted between 2010 and 2012 by ECA member associations in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The studies surveyed more than 6,000 European pilots, asking them to assess the level of their fatigue.
More than half of those questioned said that their fatigue interfered with “their ability to perform well while on flight duty,” the report said.
“A common indicator of the problem is that fatigued pilots are prone to fall asleep or experience episodes of micro-sleep in the cockpit. In the U.K. (43 percent), Denmark (50 percent), Norway (53 percent) and Sweden (54 percent), the surveyed pilots reported falling asleep involuntarily in the cockpit while flying. In the U.K., a third of the pilots [were] said to have woken up finding their colleague sleeping as well. Sixty-five percent of Dutch and French pilots stated they have trouble with ‘heavy eyelids’ during flight.”
More than 80 percent of German pilots, and more than 60 percent of those in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, said they had made mistakes because of fatigue, the report said.
Nevertheless, most of the pilots questioned in the eight surveys said they would not report the problem to their employers or declare themselves unfit to fly because of their fatigue, the report said, adding that the pilots feared “disciplinary actions or stigmatization by the employer or colleagues.”
In the survey of U.K. pilots, nearly one-third of respondents said that they had not reported their fatigue “because they were too tired to file a report.” Forty-one percent said they “could see no benefit in doing so,” 14 percent “did not want to make a fuss,” and 13 percent “did not want the management to have a less positive opinion of me.”
The report added, “Another striking aspect is that those who have already filed a report do not feel motivated to do it again. It could either be because they have already felt negative consequences or have seen no results.”
The report said that the national surveys confirm the findings of previous scientific and medical researchers, who identified types of flight operations that have the strongest association with fatigue — for example, “night duties, disruptive schedules, long flight duties and long work days (e.g., standby plus flight duty).”
The report cited, in addition to recent accidents in which pilot fatigue has been singled out as a probable cause or a contributing factor, a May 2012 event in which an Air Berlin flight crew made an emergency landing in Munich because of pilot fatigue. The report did not discuss details of that event, but published reports at the time said that the German air accident investigation bureau reviewed the May 5 request for clearance to land by the Airbus A330 pilots, who had told air traffic control that they wanted to land as soon as possible because they were feeling “extremely fatigued” as they approached Munich after a flight from Palma de Mallorca, Spain. They landed 12 minutes after they made the request.3
- Reis, Cátia; Mestre, Catarina; Canhão, Helena. “Prevalence of Fatigue in a Group of Airline Pilots.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine Volume 84 (August 2013): 828–833.
- Available at <www.eurocockpit.be/stories/20121105/barometer-on-pilot-fatigue>.
- Gubisch, Michael. “Air Berlin Crew’s Fatigued Distress Call Faces Safety Probe.” Flightglobal, June 25, 2012.