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Air transport - flight time

In an unexpected turnaround, MEPs decided in plenary, on 9 October, to support the European Commission's proposals on the revision of flight time and rest periods for aircraft pilots. They rejected – by 218 to 387 and 66 abstentions – a motion for rejection of these proposals. The same motion for rejection, tabled by the Greens and the European United Left, had nevertheless been adopted by the Committee on Transport (TRAN) less than two weeks ago by a comfortable majority of 20 to 13.

The vote marks the end of a saga that ran for three years – from the time the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) started its consultations – and stirred up heated debate against a backdrop of intensive lobbying. Under the comitology procedure applying here, Parliament and the Council had until 25 October to oppose the measures. Since the member states have already come out in favour of the proposals (apart from Austria and the Netherlands, which are opposed), they will be deemed to have been adopted as of 25 October.

After the vote, comments came from every direction: Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas welcomed this “victory for common sense,” while the European Cockpit Association (ECA), representing pilots, spoke of a “sad day for European flight safety”. Even the Chair of the Employers' Group in the European Economic and Social Committee, Jacek Krawczyk, former chair of the oversight committee for the Polish airline LOT, gave his opinion, describing as “absolutely inappropriate and beneath all standards” the tactics of pilots' unions, which “frightened passengers in order to obstinately protect the status quo”.

The debate had become increasingly heated in recent weeks, with the two sides accusing each other of lies and going on endlessly about exhausted pilots falling asleep in their cockpit. This argument came up again on the eve of the vote during the debate in plenary. “If there is an accident in the future, you will be responsible, along with those voting against this motion for rejection,” said Michael Cramer (Greens-EFA, Germany).

In the midst of all this, Commissioner Kallas had to keep a cool head. At the end of the plenary debate, he nevertheless took the floor to say that he has “never appreciated personal insults in political debate,” in response to allusions in recent months to the “commissioner bought by the airlines”.

In the end, it was hard for non-experts to know whether the new rules will be better than the old ones at protecting pilots against fatigue, their official objective. Proponents give numerous examples of improvements, such as the reduction of night flight time (maximum 11 hours, compared with 11 hours 45 minutes today), a flight time limit of 1,000 hours (1,300 today) over a period of 12 consecutive months and the introduction of a new flight limit over a 14-day period (maximum 110 hours), which does not exist at present. Opponents reply that with the accumulation of flight time and waiting time, pilots could be obliged to land an aircraft after being awake for 22 hours (false, claims the Commission). They also make a comparison with the United States, where the maximum night flight time is nine hours (but their recovery time is much shorter than in Europe, reply proponents). Both sides brandish scientific studies backing their arguments.

What this issue has also brought to light is MEPs' frustration over having only a yes' or no' vote, and thus having no opportunity to make their mark. This was of their own choosing, however, given their adoption several years ago of the basic regulation establishing that modifications are adopted in comitology. For the Commission, this is perfectly logical: there is not really room here for political debate. “I cannot decide on 10 hours 45 minutes, 10 hours and a quarter or 10 and a half hours and all this, regulating pauses between flight duty periods. That has to remain a matter for experts,” declared Kallas. In this case, the expert is the EASA.

 

10 October 2013
Europolitics