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Pan-European protests as EU introduces new working hours for pilots

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

When SAS employees were forced to agree to a 47.5 hour week they came closer to the general rule within the EU. Now further EU adjustments await. Brussels is preparing new rules on flight working hours and member states will not be allowed to adopt stricter rules. But according to pilot organisations and air safety authorities the proposals are a threat to air safety.

A tired pilot is a dangerous pilot. Everyone can understand that, and this was also the starting point in 2006 when the EU adopted minimum rules on working hours and rest periods for civil aviation.

But, as is always the case in EU matters, the aim was also to create ”a level playing field”, i.e. fair competition between airlines in different countries, in support of the principle of free movement. And member states had different views of how to arrive at the correct balance between safety interests and business interests.

The existing rules therefore allow for countries to adopt legislation and collective agreements with stricter limits on flight crew working hours. There are also issues which don’t fall under EU regulation at all, but which are decided by the member states alone, e.g. how to calculate duty periods and rest periods when flying across different time zones, when pilots and cabin crew are standby outside of the airport, or in cases of so-called split duty, i.e. when a work shift is lengthened by dividing it into two shifts. Denmark, Norway and Sweden are among those countries which partly have stricter rules, and cooperate closely in this area by subscribing to the same legislation on flight and duty time limitations.

Scientific assessment

At the same time as the EU rules were adopted the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) was asked to perform a scientific and medical assessment of the rules. EASA consulted a group of experienced flight fatigue experts. The expert group agreed on several recommendations, but when the air safety agency presented its proposed new rules on 1 October this year, it had taken only some of the group’s views into consideration.

“The airlines industry criticised us for coming up with unscientific and even dangerous suggestions,” the only Nordic member of the group, Professor Torbjörn Åkerstedt from the Swedish Stress Research Institute, said in an earlier interview.

Because of the criticism of the expert group’s report, EASA gathered more expert advise and now writes: “It has however become more and more apparent that a literature-based scientific review of any FTL [flight time limitation] scheme has its limits.”

The Authority concludes that a quantitative assessment of a new set of rules before its implementation is impossible. A complete scientific study would nonetheless be useful. Such a study can however only deliver meaningful results if conducted after the rules are fully implemented.

EU should practice the precautionary principle

Rather than carrying out such a full-scale experiment with air safety, the EU should practice the precautionary principle and choose what is safe before what is uncertain, thinks the European Cockpit Association, which will protest alongside cabin crew across Europe on 22 January next year.

EASA defends its proposal by focussing on a number of improvements compared to the current EU rules, but these rules are a strikingly low baseline and are by far outweighed by new provisions allowing highly risky schedules, the association says.

Air safety authorities in the Scandinavian countries also think crew risk fatigue if the EASA proposals go through, according to Christer Ullvetter at the Swedish Transport Agency. At the same time he underlines that, on some points, they would lead to stricter requirements in Scandinavia too.

Today’s EU rules allow air crew to work up to 60 hours over seven days, but no more than 190 hours - divided as equally as possible - over a 28 day period. That is a weekly average of 47.5 hours, the same as has been agreed at SAS. Flight hours are limited to 13 hours a day. Under certain circumstances it can be extended with an hour, in other cases it should be shorter.

Swedish Transport Agency wants shorter working hours

The Swedish Transport Agency has suggested to limit the maximum daily flight duty period to 12 hours, so far with no luck. It has had better results with its suggested limit of 100 hours’ work in 14 days, to prevent anyone from having to work two 60 hour weeks in a row.

“By working tirelessly we have managed to force through a 110 hours limit,” says Christer Ullvetter. He still hopes to lower this to 100 hours as EASA’s proposal is being assessed by the European Commission.

Another major worry is the long working hours which the proposal could lead to when air crews’ standby time is followed by a period of flight time. In extreme circumstances this could mean pilots having to land an aircraft after 23 hours of service. The Swedish Transport Agency says the rules on standby fail to take into consideration the level of stress involved when you are on call and not able to plan your rest periods.

Norway cannot vote

So there are still certain opportunities for change. Regrettably, says Christer Ullvetter, Norway is not allowed to vote when the member states decide on the final proposal, and Denmark and Sweden only make up some 10 percent of the votes.

“This is unfortunate, since Denmark, Norway and Sweden are in complete agreement on several suggested changes.”

To get the best EU legislation possible is particularly important now, because member states will no longer be allowed to adopt stricter rules. A company, for instance SAS, will of course still be allowed to reach a collective agreement with better conditions for work time and rest periods. But how many companies will be able to do that in today’s competitive market?


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