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Beyond breaking point – is the pilot an ‘aircraft part’, or a person?

Two publications this month shed some rare illumination on this question and the life of aircrew. They don’t make for comfortable reading. The first is the EU Commission’s report “Aviation Strategy for Europe: Maintaining and promoting high social standards”, an attempt to get a grasp of the social and employment problems of mobile workers in European Aviation. The second is EASA’s “Effectiveness of Flight Time Limitation” report, examining how its harmonised fatigue prevention rules are working (or not) in practice.

So, to answer that question in the title…

When a big manufacturer creates a new airliner, they have to build it from parts that have been certified, based on standards, modelling and testing. For instance, when testing the wings, an aircraft structure is strapped and bolted to the floor of a hanger, and large jacks are placed under the wingtips. They are progressively raised, jacking up the ends of the wings, whilst the roots stay in position, and the wing bends up, and up, and up. Until it snaps.

This way, everyone knows where the breaking point of the wing is, and the load beyond which it cannot be operated. We also know how hard we can run the engines, the speed and temperature at which they break down and should not be pushed. And not surprisingly, regulators set the limits for using the aeroplane well below these breaking points, allowing only time restricted and occasional operation even at these limits.

Many of the critical parts in this regime are also ‘lifed’. That is to say we know they deteriorate over time under stress, and so long before getting to a point of failure, they are pre-emptively taken out of service. Some can be tested and refurbished before going back to an airplane.

All of this makes sense from an engineering perspective. Aircraft parts are predictable, and the rules on their use are clear and readily followed.

There is another critical element required for the airliner to function, that cannot however be characterised this way – the pilots.

FTL rules against #pilotfatigue attempt to treat people like aircraft parts, and define the redline beyond which they will ‘break’

EASA’s Flight Time Limitation regulations are supposed to limit the length and character of flight duties and monthly schedules in such a way that they cannot fatigue pilots and crew to an extent that safety is compromised. Unfortunately, they fail in this regard on two broad principles (as well as dozens of more specific ones). 

Firstly, they attempt to treat people like aircraft parts, and define the ‘redline’, beyond which they will ‘break’. Constantly running people at the redline (as the computer algorithms used to schedule aircrew on a ‘minimum manpower cost’ basis inevitably do) leads quickly to burnout and chronic fatigue. 

Secondly, in attempting to define such a ‘redline’, the regulation goes well beyond the overwhelming scientific consensus of sleep scientists, doctors and others as to what that breaking point is. So, it doesn’t even run pilots at the real redline – it runs them well beyond it, continuously.

EASA’s fatigue report details the inevitable consequence of this in the areas it reviews – when you force people to be awake and alert during the hours of the night their bodies need to be asleep, they get fatigued. When you make them get up and work in those core night hours on early and late ‘disruptive schedules’, again and again without breaks, they get fatigued. 

Why be responsible for a loyal employee when you can turn a tap on and off to fill your cockpits, without thought of the consequences on the actual people?

When you look at the way in which many of these pilots are employed – zero hours contracts, fake self-employment and via quasi-permanent ‘temporary’ agencies, it is difficult to see how pilots are even being treated as well as the parts, let alone as people. There is certainly little attempt to provide the space in working existence for a normal life – maternity or parental leave for a family life, sick days, or even just enough normal ‘off days’ to function outside the job. Burnout levels are high and getting higher, even in major network airlines long term sickness levels are going through the roof. Management response? Put people into aggressive ‘absence control procedures’, try and get those workshy pilots back in the seat. Obviously, it has nothing to do with relentless fatiguing rosters, minimum parental leave, lack of flexible working or ‘maximised’ productivity. If a lifed part can be given pre-emptive time off to ‘recuperate’ before being refurbished and returned to work, surely this is the least we could expect for a human being.

This brings us on to the other report to see light is the Commission’s examination of social conditions and problems in Europe’s aviation industry. Bear in mind that these problems will be on top of being run beyond the ‘redline’ of human fatigue tolerance! 


The EU Commission identifies that enforcement within and between member states is woeful and must be improved

It does show that at least the Commission is starting to see some of the ways in which employment relationships with crews are being exploited, but it also shows where pilots are not being treated as you might expect any normal person would be. There are widespread examples of misuse of the rules: from being asked to ‘pay to fly’, paying the airline for the privilege of coming to work before they will be given a ‘normal’ job, to fake self-employment status where their normal fundamental rights as workers are missing. Of particular prevalence is the use of unnecessary intermediary agencies between a pilot and the airline to lower cost and dilute accountability where it suits the airline. Why be responsible for a loyal employee when you can turn a tap on and off to fill your cockpits, without thought of the consequences on the actual people that affects?

The Commission identifies that enforcement within and between member states is woeful and must be improved, and that there is significant room to tighten the gaps in social rules to ensure aircrew don’t fall between them. Achieving this in reality will need more than a report however, and a fresh push from the new Commission and Parliament later this year is a prerequisite.

You might hope that in a safety critical industry like aviation that playing fast and loose with the rules in any area would have no place. After all there’s no room for it with the parts the airliner is built from. 

But for some reason the most critical ‘part’ of all does not seem to attract the same care or consideration as the aeroplane’s nuts and bolts. Let alone the rights and considerations deserved by an actual person.

by Capt. Jon Horne, ECA President