27th Jan 2021

Parliament endorses controversial EU flight rules

  • Brussels airport: Pilots' unions say the new rules will reduce flight safety (Photo: Valentina Pop)

The European Parliament on Wednesday (9 October) endorsed a draft bill on shorter flight hours for pilots, despite criticism that the new rules could actually increase fatigue and pose risks to passengers.

The result - 387 votes in favour, 281 against and 66 abstention - came as something of a surprise , as MEPs in the transport committee last week voted against the bill and said the commission should take it back to the drawing board.

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Under the new law, which harmonises a patchwork of rules varying from one EU country to another, standby duty and flying time will be limited to 16 hours. Pilot associations however demand no more than ten hours of standby duty citing the risk of fatigue.

Transport commissioner Siim Kallas, who championed the proposal, called it a "victory for common sense" and said it will increase flight safety.

Key to the vote swing were the Social-Democrats, who argued that a last-minute deal between pilots' representatives and the EU commission made the difference.

Under the initial proposal, pilots could have been kept on stand-by and in the cockpit for up to 22 hours.

But under the eleventh-hour deal, whose details still have to be ironed out by the commission, "no crew member will be on flight duty after more than 18 hours of being awake," the Social-Democrats said.

British MEP Brian Simpson, chairman of the transport committee and also a member of the Social-Democrats, admitted that "this has been a long drawn-out process with feelings running high on all sides."

"At the end of the day I believe the commission proposal as it now stands should be supported so that we can ensure that Europe's excellent safety record in aviation can be maintained and strengthened," he said.

But other MEPs and the pilots' umbrella association were not happy with the result.

The Greens voted against because, they say, the working hours still potentially pose a risk to passengers.

"There is already evidence of overworked pilots falling asleep in the cockpit and any proposal which risks this happening more frequently is very risky indeed," said Keith Taylor, a British Green MEP.

The European Cockpit Association, representing almost 40,000 pilots, also voiced criticism.

“Today the European Parliament voted for a regulation that is not to the benefit of the flying public in Europe,” said Nico Voorbach, head of the pilots' association.

Even though the EU commission gave some reassurances, the Cockpit Association says they "came in the last minute and, again, did not take account of what numerous scientific reports recommend as safe practices.”

“Now that these rules are adopted, in case of an accident related to aircrew fatigue, Europe’s citizens will have to hold accountable those who promoted this flawed proposal,” the pilots' association warned.

The rules need to be approved by member states before entering into force.

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