One year ago – on 18 February 2016 – the new European rules on Flight Time Limitations (FTL) became applicable throughout Europe. With the overarching aim of preventing air crew fatigue from posing a threat to flight safety, two key objectives of these new rules were to achieve a harmonised regulation across Europe, and to improve flight safety standards through a better anticipation and management of fatigue risks at the level of individual airlines. Have these two objectives been achieved?
ECA – the European Cockpit Association – had accompanied the development of these new ‘EASA FTL’ rules over several years – stressing the need for truly science-based FTL rules. The rules finally adopted, in late 2013, gave a push to harmonization across Europe and replaced many outdated regulations in several EU countries. However, it also substituted existing state-of-the-art FTL schemes – such as in Scandinavian countries or the UK’s ‘CAP-371’ – by a lower level of safety standard, resulting in ‘safety-regression’ in some of Europe’s most important aviation nations. At that time, not only pilot associations but – more importantly – renowned scientists strongly warned about the numerous safety shortcomings when the regulation was initially approved (see ETSC report, 2013). EASA FTL was regarded to be too complex and based insufficiently on the extensive scientific studies and medical knowledge accumulated over more than 30 years.
The new EASA FTL concept intends to combine two fundamentally different approaches to provide sufficient protection from fatigue: the traditional approach of a tightly regulated prescriptive rule set and a flexible customisable system under a Fatigue Risk Management (FRM or FRM(S)). The latter, once approved by the national aviation authority (NAA), validated by EASA, and fine-tuned at operator level, would allow to accommodate the operators’ individual operational needs, but still provide the same – or even a higher – level of safety. As such, FRM(S) would come on top of the prescriptive rules, providing an additional and proactive safety layer, and providing more operational flexibility.
On the 1st anniversary of EASA’s new rules, ECA however notes several major shortcomings primarily in regards to the implementation of EASA FTL:
- Despite new FTL rules, pilot fatigue continues to be a reality in Europe’s cockpits, especially in those areas that scientific experts had identified as the weak spots, such as night flights,
- Inconsistent & diverging interpretations and applications of the new rules,
- Widespread flaws in the operators’ FRM, and
- ‘Deviations’ from the new rules, some of which are questionable from a safety perspective.
Several of these shortcomings in fact suggest that scientific knowledge has been – and continues to be – sacrificed to economic demands. While flexibility for operators – as provided by EASA ‘deviations’ process – is appreciated, some of the deviations granted under this process are highly problematic. Some are ‘mind-breaking’ loose to cater exclusively for economic needs, some of them are in addition ‘politically enforced’ by supportive national authorities, and others reduce any FRM’s vital core processes to a blunt ‘tick-in-the-box’ documentation exercise, rather than a pinpointed analysis to proactively manage the fatigue risks related to a deviation.
The proper application of FRM – as the very back bone of EASA’s ‘deviation’ process and of any operator’s safety management – is quite often either not understood, poorly handled, inadequately overseen or simply misused to cover ongoing malpractice. An ECA internal benchmarking of almost 30 airlines’ FRM, in 2016, showed that most operators’ FRM is still immature and not fit for purpose. This is worrying.
Unfortunately, in times of budget cuts and staffing shortages at national level, only a small minority of national aviation authorities have a good understanding of the rules and can properly oversee operators. At the same time, ‘self-management’ of FRM by the companies themselves works only hand-in-hand with a strong oversight and controlling authority. For this, the authority needs to understand both the EASA FTL rules and the way FRM works, and to develop a clear concept on what to look for when overseeing an operator. Few have this ability today.
Finally, on this FTL-versary, it becomes apparent that the complexity of these rules is a major hurdle to a uniform understanding and interpretation of their meaning. In fact, the handling of the implementation of EASA’s rules – by operators and national authorities alike – presently allows for an un-orchestrated ‘swamp’ of vastly different interpretations. And again, whilst scientific knowledge about fatigue prevention should be followed, it is quite frequently the commercial imperatives that determine how to apply a specific rule.
As long as the lack of expertise and – most importantly – resources within national and European oversight authorities continues, it will remain a challenge to achieve the initial idea of EU-wide harmonisation and the target of a high uniform level of safety.
It is therefore crucial and inevitable that EASA does not only rapidly review the rules themselves – a process it has just started and that will provide results by early 2019 – but reviews the interpretation and handling of the rules by the NAAs. For this, clear guidance from EASA on how to interpret the new rules and how to implement them is required. Further, we need better coordination and communication between EASA, authorities, airlines and aircrew. Only then we will be able to provide transparency to the ‘muddy pool’ of EASA FTL and to develop comprehensive concepts of effective fatigue management and true safety oversight in Europe.
On this 1st anniversary of EASA FTL, there is still a big task ahead of Europe’s aviation community. But a task worth being tackled.
by Carsten Reuter, ECA FTL Working Group & Vereiningung Cockpit Chairman FDT Committee