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This page is part of an ECA archive on FTL. For more recent content, visit our campaign page on Pilot Fatigue.

Why Do We Need Science?

For a long time, fatigue and its impact on transport safety has been subject to research. A wide body of aviation- and flight time-related scientific evidence is available (see list below) identifying pilot fatigue as a risk factor in flight safety, and showing the need for effective Flight Time Limitations (FTL) to reduce this risk. (see list of scientific publications and overview of scientific literature and related list) .

Despite this, EU legislation (EU-OPS Regulation, “Subpart Q”) setting FTL for pilots, had never been subject to a scientific and medical evaluation. Instead, it is the result of a political compromise during the legislative process in 2004/2006 that resulted in today’s Subpart Q. Hence, Europe’s current legislation is not based on sound scientific evidence as to its ability to prevent pilot fatigue.

This lack of scientific basis, must be addressed to ensure passengers can enjoy highest, scientifically supported safety levels when boarding European airplanes.

This lack of scientific basis is also why the European Parliament and Council of Transport Ministers, back in 2006, decided that a medical and scientific evaluation of Subpart Q must be carried out within 2 years after entry into force of the EU-OPS Regulation. As a result, the EU-OPS Regulation contains a legally binding mandated for the

  • European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to carry out such an evaluation by January 2009;
  • European Commission to "draw up and submit [legislative] proposals without delay to amend the relevant technical provisions" of Subpart Q on the basis of this scientific evaluation, should the latter show that FTL rules need to be amended.
EASA's Scientific Study

To fulfill its legal mandate to carry out a scientific evaluation of Subpart Q, in late 2006 EASA set up an Advisory Group of aviation stakeholders, consulting them on the EASA tender document, on its selection criteria [1], the project's working methodology and the specific questions that were to be submitted to the scientists[2].

On that basis, EASA launched a tender (EASA.2007.OP.08) which resulted in a Swiss consultancy 'Moebus Aviation' being chosen which had put together a panel of 10 renowned European scientists.

After the draft final ‘Moebus report’ was presented to the Agency and stakeholders in Sept. 2008 and discussed in the Advisory Group in Nov. 2008, EASA published the results of the scientific study in January 2009. 

The report concludes that that “some of the present [EU-OPS] rules or proposed modifications of rules are in violation with one or more of these factors” i.e. factors that are known to increase pilot fatigue – and hence the risk to the safety of flight operations.

The main problem areas identified were a) the large number of pilots’ duty hours in a short time, b) long duty hours, c) night duty, d) early starts of duty, e) time-zone crossing, and f) standby duty. And it concludes that:

  • The currently allowed maximum daily flight duty period of 13-14 hours “exceeds reasonable limits” and is “not in keeping with the body of scientific evidence”; it should therefore be reduced;
  • The currently allowed maximum of 11:45 hours night duty should be reduced to 10 hours, because of the particularly fatiguing nature of work at night;
  • The currently allowed practice of 3 consecutive 60-hour weeks (i.e. 180 duty hours in 21 days) needs to be changed by setting an additional limit of 100 duty hours within 14 consecutive days (i.e. an average of 50 hours/week, instead of 60);
  • The currently allowed practice of “advancing” the end of the pilots’ weekly rest – which allows a start of duty as early as 04:00 in the morning – is “unacceptable” as “it would result in aircrew starting their week […] in a fatigued state”; hence this practice should not be allowed;
  • Stand-by at the airport is as fatiguing as flight duty, and should therefore not be considered as “rest” but normally “count 100% as flight duty when calculating the maximum flight duty period.

Moebus Aviation FTL Study - Full Report

Summary of the study's main findings

[1] These criteria were "to guarantee a high level of knowledge, competence and independence, so that their conclusions can provide for a strong scientific basis for regulating flight time limitations and rest periods in an objective way" (quote from the EASA tender). [2] EASA chose to focus the study on "the points of disagreement between the main parties affected by FTL regulations and to seek the opinion of a panel of independent experts on the right way to address these points" (quote from the EASA Tender).

3 New Scientific Studies

While Moebus Aviation’s panel of experts had found consensus on all points and made clear recommendations to the EU Institutions, they were largely ignored in the subsequent rulemaking process, due to heavy airline lobbying against the study’s findings (see: “What Do the Airlines Say?”).

As a result of repeated requests from ECA, EASA finally agreed to scientifically assess its first “NPA” proposal for new FTL rules (see next chapter). Further to a tender process in late 2010, three renowned scientists (Dr. P. Cabon, Dr. A. Gundel and Dr. M. Spencer) were asked to prepare 3 separate independent assessments on whether the proposed rules were in line with scientific evidence. – Their reports were finalized end June 2011 and made available – on a confidential basis – to the stakeholders represented in EASA’s rulemaking group.

Whilst having been prepared separately and independently from each other, the 3 reports converge in most of their findings, demonstrating that many provisions of EASA’s proposal were not in line with what science considers necessary to ensure safe flight operations.

The reports also confirm most of the findings of the Moebus report. For example, they reiterate the need to limit night flights to 10 hours; to limit extensions to flight duty times to a narrow time window (07:00-12:00 start time); to reduce the max. daily flight duty times as of the 2nd take-off (as opposed to the 3rd take-off); to limit the use of early starts, late finishes and night duties as they disrupt the crew’s sleep patterns; etc. - However, EASA refused to make these results public in summer 2011. Instead it kept them confidential for more than 6 months.

EASA published the 3 scientific reports on 18 Jan. 2012, as part of a comprehensive “CRD” package of documents – hidden away in one of the Annexes (page 103-194) and without any overview of the reports’ recommendations. That way Agency ensured that the reports did not get much attention.

Despite their very clear and converging recommendations, the 3 reports had almost no impact on the subsequent rulemaking process and EASA’s “CRD” proposal (Jan. 2012).

In March 2012, ECA therefore asked EASA to hire the 3 scientists again to carry out an assessment of the latest EASA proposals before their publication as a final “Opinion”. The aim was to get an independent view on whether the final package was indeed is in line with scientific evidence and sufficiently safe, as EASA claimed. This request, however, was rejected by EASA (May 2012). ECA’s subsequent request (May 2012) to the EU Commission’s DG Move was equally rejected (July 2012). A renewed request to the Commission (Nov. 2012) remained unanswered.

However, several scientists carried out an independent assessment of the Opinion, in May 2013, reconfirming many of the previous findings and recommendations (see below: Chapter ‘6 Scientists Assess EASA Opinion’).

EASA Rulemaking Process

It took the Agency until Sept. 2009 – i.e. 1 year after the Moebus Report was available – to convene a stakeholder meeting to hold “preliminary discussions”. At this meeting pilot and cabin crew representatives stressed the need for science-based FTL rules, whereas the airline representatives stated that they reject anything that would change today’s fatigue rules – except if it resulted in more flexibility.(see joint airlines’ position)

The airline’s opposition to science-based rule changes made work in EASA’s ‘OPS.055’ working group rather difficult (the group comprised 5 airline representatives, 5 air crew experts, 5 National Authority representatives, EASA staff, a Chairman, and one observer from the EU Commission). After one year of work, the participants found consensus on only very few issues.

As a result, the EASA’s 1st proposal for FTL rules – issued on 20 Dec. 2010 in the form of a ‘Notice of Proposed Amendment” (NPA) – turned out to be inadequate to manage fatigue and ensure safe flight operations. Based on a weak Regulatory Impact Assessment, it disregarded decades of scientific research (incl. the Moebus Report) and was largely tailored to the airline’s commercial needs. Also, it set a level well below the FTL safety standards currently applied in many EU countries such as the UK, Spain and others.

ECA therefore rejected the NPA and called on the EU Institutions to deliver safety-oriented and science-based FTL rules, free from social and commercial considerations. (see Press Release)

Almost 50.000 comments on the NPA were subsequently received from stakeholders – incl. many pilots – a record in the Agency’s rulemaking history  (see: "Flight Time Limitations: 3 Words – 50.000 Comments")

Between April and Nov. 2011, EASA assessed the stakeholder comments, discussed them with the OPS.055 group and prepared a revised proposal. EASA also invited the 3 scientists who had been asked to assess the NPA (see chapter ‘3 new scientific studies’) to the OPS.055 group to present their preliminary findings.

In Jan. 2012, EASA published its revised proposal, the "Comment Response Document" (CRD), which included a number of improvements, compared to the NPA (e.g. rest facility definitions on board, disruptive schedules, etc.). However, most key provisions did not reflect the recommendations from the 3 scientific reports commissioned by the Agency, nor did EASA make use of the precautionary principle. Several CRD provisions, e.g. on airport standby or ‘short-call’ standby, allowed pilots to land a plane after dangerously long times awake (up to 18-21 hrs). 

As for the NPA, ECA criticised the lack of scientific basis and the fact that EASA gave again priority to the airlines’ commercial interests rather than to passenger safety. Again, ECA called upon EASA to revise its proposal in line with scientific and medical evidence.

And again, these calls were ignored in the subsequent process, where EASA held 2 further meetings of the OPS.055 group meetings. The draft final proposal, presented to the group members, in Sept. 2012, showed the same deficiencies as the CRD. But in addition, several CRD provisions had been watered down significantly – after the airlines had voiced strong criticism on these points (short-call standby, reserve standby, disruptive schedules, etc.). Some of those changes were introduced in the last minute without consultation of the group and without proper safety justification.

In reaction, ECA issued a strong statement criticising the rule-making process and its outcome.

EASA's final Opinion

On 1 Oct. 2012, EASA published its final “Opinion”, i.e. a comprehensive set of new FTL rules to be applicable to all EU Member States, covering both the areas currently subject to EU-OPS Subpart Q and those currently subject to national rules (so-called “black holes”).

Despite a number of improvements compared to today’s Subpart Q, the EASA Opinion continues to disregard available scientific evidence, including the three reports it commissioned in 2011. If not changed, the new FTL rules will allow pilots to be scheduled for excessively long duties without providing sufficient amount of rest. They will make it legal for pilots to operate an aircraft and land after having been awake for more than 22 hours. It also allows e.g.:

  • Extremely long hours awake at the moment of landing, after long standby and subsequent flight duties, or after successively ‘delayed reporting’, or when combining long-term ‘reserve’ stanby with other forms of standby, followed by a full flight duty;
  • Night flights of up to 12:30 hrs, whilst scientists set the limit at max. 10 hrs;        
  • Evading stringent rules on flight schedules that disrupt sleep patterns, such as very early starts, by allowing Member States to simply opt out of these rules;
  • Putting crews on open-ended standby for many consecutive days without an ability to plan their rest or sleep, and without any of this time counting as duty.

Crucially, the new rules will replace existing national FTL standards which – in several EU countries – are well above the level set by EASA. The new EU-wide rules will therefore result in a lowering of safety standards in countries such as the UK, Spain, Scandinavian countries and others. This is not only contrary to what Europe’s travelling public expects from a Safety Agency, but it is also contrary to the ‘non-regression’ principle that underpins today’s EU-OPS Subpart Q. According to this principle, the introduction of new EU legislation should not lead to a regression in safety levels.

ECA has therefore called upon the EU Institutions to reject the Opinion in its current form and to amend it into a safe package, based on science, the precautionary principle and best operational practice.

Next steps (until adoption by end 2013/ Jan 2014): see legislative timeline

6 Scientists Assess EASA Opinion

On 6 May 2013, the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) issued a position paper benchmarking the EASA Opinion against the opinion of 6 scientific experts. In their paper, the ETSC criticises EASA’s insufficient take-up of scientific evidence, pinpoints areas where improvement is required, and urges EU decision-makers to “think carefully before giving final approval” to the FTL proposal.

While welcoming the EASA’s proposal as a comprehensive attempt to address the problem of aircrew fatigue, ETSC states that “the proposals do not fully and properly reflect the scientific evidence that should underpin fatigue management. Nor do they fully incorporate the scientific evidence which EASA itself commissioned.”

In particular, the 6 scientists recommend the following changes to the Opinion:

1.    Daily maximum Flight Duty Period (FDP):

  • Night duties should be limited to 10 hrs FDP (while up to 14 hrs are possible for start times between 08:00-11:00);
  • FDP should be reduced as of the 2nd take-off (‘sector’), not as of the 3rd;
  • Possibility to extend FDP by 1 hour twice per week should be abolished.

2.    Standby:

  • As sleep will always be shorter & of poorer quality, rest facilities should be comparable to Class 1 inflight rest facilities;
  • Standby duty should count towards FDP if it interferes with normal sleep patterns,
  • Long times on standby+FDP should be avoided.

3.    Disruptive schedules:

  • Schedules that disrupt normal sleep patterns (early starts, late finishes) should be done under a Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS);
  • No more than 3 such schedules in a row should be allowed;
  • Early starts should not be followed by duty overlapping the deep-sleep ‘WOCL’ period (02:00-05:59);

4.    Inflight-rest on board of an aircraft:

  • Base FDP extensions should be based on a %age of the duration of the sleep in an on-board rest facility; not on a simplistic formula based solely on type of rest facility (as EASA proposes).

5.    Fatigue Risk Management Systems:

  • FRMS to be used to enhance the mitigation of fatigue risks, not simply to increase and exceed the limits set by the rules.

6.    Commander’s discretion:

  • Extensions of the FDP decided by the Captain (due to unforeseen circumstances, such as bad weather etc.) is to be reported within 14 days, not after 28 days.

This ETSC paper – and the scientific advice it is based upon – re-confirms many of the recommendations made by scientific experts previously. It also makes evident that EASA’s Opinion is insufficiently based on scientific evidence – contrary to what is required by EU law and ICAO standards.

Read the full ETSC Position on Flight Time Limitations

Read: Dead-tired News

Commission Proposal & EU Parliament

On 25 July 2013, the EU Commission published its final proposal. While it contains a number of welcome clarifications and adaptations compared to the EASA Opinion, all substantive provisions remain largely unchanged – despite the recommendations from the scientists who contributed to the ETSC report (see previous chapter).

The publication came after a debate and vote among Member States representatives in the ‘EASA Committee’, in mid-July. Nine Member States had raised concerns about the proposal, mainly on night flights and standby provisions. However, the Commission encouraged those states to vote in favour if they wanted to remain involved in discussions on the related ‘soft law’ provisions in the Certification Specifications. As a result, out of those 9 states only 2 (Netherlands and Austria) finally voted against the proposal, while the others decided to vote in favour.

The publication of the Commission proposals marked the start of the 3-months scrutiny period, during which Member States and the European Parliament (EP) can decide to adopt or reject the proposals (text amendments are not possible) by 25 Oct. 2013. However, as the proposal was published just before the EP’s summer recess, Members of the EP (MEPs) have de facto only 2 months to exercise their right of Scrutiny.

The EP had debated FTL already on 2 occasions: in March at the Transport Committee, where several MEPs raised concerns about the provisions on night flights, standby and ‘non-regression’, and at a special FTL Hearing organised by the EP Transport Committee, in mid-June. At this Hearing the Commission and EASA defended their proposal, with the airlines supporting it as fair and balanced, while air crew severely criticized the proposal. Crucially, the fatigue scientist Dr. Gundel, raised several concerns about the proposal – including on night flights – and concluded by stating: “Honourable Members, if you are in favour of the proposal that has been put forward, you’d be voting against the opinion of scientific experts.” (watch the Highlights of the debate)

With only 2 months to examine the Commission proposal, and its role being limited to approving or rejecting the proposal, the EP’s ability to exercise its right of scrutiny is rather small. This right is further reduced by that fact that the Commission proposal only contains the ‘hard law’ Cover Regulation and ‘Implementing Rules’ whereas a large part of the substantive provisions are contained in the ‘soft law’ Certification Specifications (CS). However, the EP has no say over CS – which are decided upon by EASA alone. Consequently, a significant part of the FTL package – including key provisions on standby and flight duty periods – have de facto been withdrawn from the EP’s scrutiny oversight.

Given the very short deadline that the Commission imposed upon the EP, the Parliament’s vote on the Commission proposal will take place on 30 Sept. 2013 (15:00) in the Transport Committee. The vote will be on a Motion tabled by several Members of the EP which calls upon the EU Commission to withdraw its proposal and to resubmit it with amendments to ensure the new rules are in line with what scientific experts consider safe. In particular, the Motion calls for night flights not to go beyond the 10 hrs recommended by the scientists, for a ‘cap’ of max. 18 hrs to be put on the combination of standby followed by a flight duty (which now could lead to landing a plane after the pilots have been awake for 22 hrs), and for a provision that prevents a downward harmonization of existing stricter national safety rules.

Pilot Fatigue: Scientific Studies

Overview of fatigue-related scientific and medical studies

This page is part of an ECA archive on FTL. For more recent content, visit our campaign page on Pilot Fatigue.