UK minister of state for transport Theresa Villiers has supported the proposed flight time regulations put forward by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), saying that new rules would offer a "significant safety gain" for UK passengers.
The UK Parliament's transport select committee today discussed the impact of EASA's proposal with Villiers, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), pilot unions and airline industry representatives.
The British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA), along with other European pilot unions, believes that the proposed harmonisation and unification of varying flight time regulations across European Union (EU) member states will lower safety standards in certain countries, such as the UK, where stricter national rules are currently in place.
Given that safety levels were raised for airlines from countries with currently lower standards, which UK passengers might use for their travels, Villiers said that there would be "significant" safety gains as a whole.
She added that the EASA proposal was "broadly" in line with current UK regulations and that UK safety standards were not being compromised.
The pilot unions are particularly concerned that some of the new rules are based on scientific evidence while others are in conflict with the research. BALPA wants the UK government to reject EASA's proposal.
The CAA, which participated in devising the EU rules, said that safety concerns had been addressed in the once-revised proposal published last month and that safety standards would be maintained.
Villiers said it would "never be possible to get complete scientific consensus...and complete consensus between unions and airlines".
BALPA believes that the maximum flight duty period would be extended from currently 16.25h in the UK to 20h under EU rules.
The CAA responded that new regulations require a 4h rest within that period. But while the authority accepts standby time at the beginning of the flight duty period as rest, the pilot unions say this does not serve as proper rest and should fully count as flight duty time.
If pilots are awake 2h before reporting for work and then spend 4h standby time at the airport before takeoff, they could legally land their aircraft 22h after they awoke for the day, BALPA warns.
A CAA spokesman says this is an "extreme case" and that such a situation would already be possible in split roster operations under current UK rules. He adds that the ultimate decision to take-off for such a flight remains with the captain and that safety standards would not be lowered through the new regulations.
BALPA also criticises the reduction in the number of flight crew for certain long-haul routes. While flights from the UK to the US West coast currently have to be operated with three pilots in the cockpit, this is to be to cut to two.
The CAA spokesman says the third pilot on such flights sits in the jump seat with no more opportunity to rest than the two active pilots, and that the reduction does not apply to flights where a crew rest compartment is available.
He adds that if EASA was not changing this rule, "we [the CAA] would change it ourselves".
Asked whether it would be possible for the UK to adopt EASA's new rules as a basis and amend with stricter UK regulation at critical points, Villiers responded that there was "a case for seeking consensus with EU countries" and improving standards elsewhere.