E.U. Pilots Fight for Shorter Shifts

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Rick Nederstigt / AFP / Getty Images

Pilots hand out leaflets at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport explaining the new E.U. rule that governs how long they can fly

Most of us have endured days at work when a combination of long hours and little sleep tests our ability to stay awake. Usually, the worst thing that happens is you snooze on your keyboard for a bit and are woken up by your boss. For airline pilots, however, the consequences of falling asleep on the job are far more serious. Pilot fatigue can, and does, cost lives. It is thought to be the main reason a commuter plane crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., earlier this year, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground.

Why, then, would the European Union allow pilots and cabin crews to work up to 14 hours straight? For unions representing pilots and flight attendants, the E.U.'s failure to lower working hours in line with scientific advice is inviting tragedy. "Do we need to wait for another accident?" says Captain Martin Chalk, president of the European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents 38,200 pilots. To protest what they see as a dangerous gamble with passengers' lives, thousands of pilots and flight attendants on Monday handed out 100,000 dummy tickets to passengers at airports across Europe, each containing fake departure and arrival points like "Awake City" and "Sleeping Island" and warnings about the risks that passengers face when pilots and cabin crew members are fatigued.

Chalk, who flies Boeing 747s, says pilot fatigue is behind 15% to 20% of all fatal aircraft accidents, but he admits it is impossible to be precise. "Although the effects of fatigue are as damaging as the effects of alcohol, there is as yet no test to determine the level of fatigue in a human, in the way there is for alcohol and drugs," he says. However, research conducted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration shows the risk of flying accidents to be 1.7 times greater when flight crew shifts are between 10 and 12 hours and 5.5 times greater for shifts of 13 hours or more. And a recent survey of more than 1,400 flight crew members by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration revealed that 80% of them admitted to "nodding off" during a flight.

Monday's protest comes a year after the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the E.U.'s air-safety advisory board, issued a scientific study, known as the Moebus Report, warning of the dangers of the E.U.'s new rules on flying hours. The regulations, introduced in July 2008, stipulate that pilots work up to a maximum of 14 hours during the day and nearly 12 hours at night. The Moebus Report recommends that the maximum lengths of shifts be lowered to 13 hours during the day and 10 hours at night. It also says that the current maximum of 180 accumulated flying hours in 21 days is too much and calls for a limit of 100 hours over 14 consecutive days.

But the Association of European Airlines (AEA), a lobbying group that represents 33 of the top airlines in Europe, believes the report was based on "flawed science with recommendations which have no safety justification." It estimates that changing the regulations would cost airlines nearly $1.5 billion in extra costs per year. Although the airline industry has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, ECA secretary general Philip von Schöppenthau says the airlines shouldn't be ignoring safety concerns in order to save money. "Yes, stricter fatigue rules — as recommended by the scientists — might cost money. But safety always has a price," he says. He points out that after the Buffalo disaster, U.S. authorities moved swiftly to overhaul U.S. flying-time regulations, and the FAA is due to propose new rules by the end of the year.

Right now, each European country can set flying-time standards that differ from the new E.U. rules. In Britain, for example, pilots are forbidden from flying more than 900 hours over the course of a year in order to prevent fatigue. But in 2012, the E.U. regulations will come into force for all member states. EASA says the Moebus Report will form the basis of negotiations between the unions and airlines as it decides what the minimum and maximum shift times should be. But no decision is expected for some time.

For pilots, however, the issue is already pressing. With so much at stake, they felt that handing out dummy tickets to passengers at terminals on Monday would be a relatively mild disruption to travelers — one they could probably deal with.