Pilots could fly 'drunk' tired under EU regulations

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 21 October 2011 in Diary
Pilot fatigue may not be as high-profile as some issues in the EU, but the government would be advised to put Britain first on this one, argues Nik Darlington

Would you feel safe climbing into a car with someone 400% over the alcohol limit behind the wheel? No. Likewise, you would not feel safe boarding an aeroplane with a pilot similarly inebriated.

But that is what newly proposed EU flight time regulations would allow if passed.  According to new research from BALPA, the pilots’ union, a 16 hours shift, including more than 12 hours in the skies, renders pilots fatigued to the equivalent of being five times over the limit.

At a meeting in Parliament on Wednesday, representatives from BALPA and medical experts presented some shocking new research about pilot fatigue.

Even under tighter British safety standards, as many as 4 in 10 pilots admit to having nodded off on the job.  What is more, one-third disclosed waking up to find their co-pilot is also away with the fairies.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) proposes to allow maximum flight duty periods of 12 hours 55 minutes. British aviation safety standards currently limit this to 9 hours. Maximum duty hour limits would also be increased.

It is a curious move because the EU, when addressing employment laws, tends to force people to work less, not more. The EU Working Time Directive, for instance, restricts workers in the EU to an average 48 hours per week.

BALPA say that this is all being done without any scientific evidence to support it, and the available evidence proves it is unsafe on grounds of fatigue. However, the slumbering statistics suggest that even the ‘safer’ standards currently in force in the UK need tightening up too.

This prompted a strident interjection – in what was otherwise a calm, good-natured (even, dare I say, sleepy) meeting – from Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne. “You appear to be saying that the status quo is acceptable, but you have pilots falling asleep.  Why aren’t they removed?”

The gathering was possibly taken aback by Walker’s tone, but few could disagree with the sentiment. 

BALPA officials poured water on the flames by insisting that a pilots’ charter – equivalent, we were told, to a democratic oath – forswears falling asleep on the job.

It was also mentioned that under-reporting of fatigue is inadvertently incentivised by aviation culture. Pilots are expected to put up with long hours as a right of passage, with conditions for junior hospital doctors used as an analogy.

Moreover, the low-cost business model of airlines wards pilots off from complaining.

A pilot who reports fatigue is instantly removed from service while the case is investigated – this leaves an expensive gap to be filled at short notice. BALPA officials said that more work needs to be done on improving reporting of fatigue and acknowledging it is a real and pervasive problem.

As for the legislation, the European Council will make a decision on the proposed EU-wide standards next year, with transport ministers from EU member states casting votes. It is understood that several MPs have already begun lobbying the new transport secretary, Justine Greening, to oppose the EU’s plans.

Present at Wednesday’s meeting were MPs from across the House, including Conservative MPs Neil Carmichael (Stroud) and Nigel Adams (Selby & Ainsty) and the Labour MP Toby Perkins (Chesterfield). A quick glance at attendance rolls showed many more had expressed an interest by sending proxies.

Burdensome regulations are the causes of the much of the disappointment British people have for the EU. Much more disappointment, besides, is hammed up fluster and bluster. This, however, is one very genuine instance of a bad EU regulation that Britain really ought to oppose.

On Monday, MPs will vote on a backbench motion for a three-way EU referendum. All three major parties are whipping against, so the motion will not pass.

The government is under fire for being ‘out of touch’ with popular opinion. As it happens, ‘popular opinion’ tends to put Europe pretty low down the list of priorities. However, perceptions matter in politics.

Conservative backbenchers want an inappropriate high-profile fight with Europe. 

Aviation safety standards offer an appropriate low-profile skirmish.

The government would be advised to act now and show that it is serious about putting Britain first when it matters.

Tags: Aviation, EU REFERENDUM, EU working time directive, Justine Greening

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