Pilot fatigue: the battle is over but the war still rages

Today the European Union, at its Parliament, agreed on a set of  pan-European flight time limitations for airline pilots after more than ten years of intense wrangling.

The pilots don’t like it, the airlines do.

Science went out the window early on in the debate, which in the end was a matter of politics as defined by Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck when he called it “the art of the possible”.

The European Aviation Safety Agency and the UK Civil Aviation Authority quickly hailed this as a huge advance, but what they really mean is that having a unified European law, for all its faults,  is infinitely preferable to multiple national rules or practices plus a European guideline.

Meanwhile these FTLs will soon become irrelevant to European airlines, and to some they already are.

EASA is moving towards mandating individually tailored fatigue risk management systems (FRMS) as a part of every airline’s safety management system. EasyJet and several other airlines already run an FRMS.

While EASA works toward that goal, the new FTLs will serve as a safety net rule.

The argument for individual FRMSs is that a one-size-fits-all law to limit fatigue by imposing duty time limits does not work for most airlines. It certainly didn’t work for EasyJet, which is why, years ago, it started looking for a more scientific way of managing its crew rosters.

Airlines are responsible in law for ensuring that their crews do not become dangerously fatigued. If a fatal accident occurred and pilot fatigue was determined to be a causal factor, application of the FTL law would be no protection against a successful charge of negligence.

The pilot association objection to the new law is that there are loopholes in it. Under certain circumstances, these loopholes allow airlines to push crews into dangerously long duty hours. That’s true, but loopholes is what they are, and if an airline regularly tried to exploit them it would do so knowing it was taking a serious risk.

Back in the 1980s the UK CAA held a press conference to relaunch an updated version of its own FTL rules, the CAP371. That publication has probably contained the most-imitated set of FTLs around the world.

Over coffee after the conference, a CAA official confided that it is impossible to create a perfect set of FTLs that would eliminate fatigue risk without making successful commercial operation impossible. Safe operation according to CAP371, he said, required that airlines “follow the spirit of the law, not just the letter”.

In other words, if an airline breaks the spirit of the new European FTLs, the law will be no protection in the event of an accident.

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One Response to Pilot fatigue: the battle is over but the war still rages

  1. Denti 13 October, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    There was already a european minimum FTL standard with EU-OPS 1 Subpart Q. Which was of course applicable within the whole EU. Countries could use more restrictive FTLs, which the UK with its CAP 371 for example did, others like germany didn’t.

    Experience from countries that used EU-OPS subpart Q, shows, that airlines didn’t follow the spirit of the rules, in fact they tried not to regard the rules as a limit but rather as a target value. Which lead to quite unsafe rosters. It would be extremely surprising if airlines now change their behavior all of a sudden in that regard.

    Although a FRMS sounds a nice thing in theory, it is easily manipulated. Wouldn’t it be easier to just implement the rules as advised by the EASAs FTL study (Moebus-Report)?

    I have to admit i’m extremely skeptical about the independence of the EASA, it seems that it is deeply entrenched into the airlines and follows very closely their recommendations.

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