Pilots claim safety at stake

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Transport Correspondent

Passengers will be in great danger from exhausted and sleepy pilots if proposals to change the rules on duty times, being considered next week, go ahead, according to the pilots' union.

The proposals would allow pilots to work longer hours, fly more routes within the same shift and take shorter rests between periods of duty. The plans are to be discussed by the Joint Aviation Authorities, which links together the civil aviation authorities of 23 European countries, next Tuesday.

Balpa, the British pilots' union, ran an advertising campaign in the national press yesterday, to highlight what it sees as these potentially "dangerous and unnecessary changes" to the rules governing pilots' working hours.

In particular, Balpa says that the proposals will allow flight crews to work up to 14 hours a day, starting at 7am and working two or even three flights during that period. Under present rules, crews working more than 12 hours are only allowed to operate one flight. The union also objects to the lengthening of duty hours for pilots taking off early in the morning, from 11 hours to 12 and a half hours.

The union says that 80 per cent of accidents are attributed to pilot error and that many of these are caused by fatigue. Chris Darke, general secretary of Balpa, said: "Flight crews have enough problems caused by fatigue without any more being created by these proposals."

A recent Balpa survey of 1,000 of its members found that four out of ten pilots said they were "constantly or frequently" tired when working in the busy summer months. Almost a quarter, 22 per cent, said they sometimes or frequently fell asleep while flying. One pilot said he had flown over a UN no-fly zone in the former Yugoslavia after he and his first officer had "drifted off to sleep".

However, Richard Yates, operations director of the JAA, said that Balpa's campaign was "misleading and extremely provocative". He explained that the JAA changes were still being discussed and nothing would be decided until similar rule changes being put forward by the US Federal Aviation Administration were finalised. "These rules will not come into effect until April 1998 at the earliest and nothing has yet been decided."

He claimed that while the new rules, which are backed by the British Civil Aviation Authority, were more relaxed in some respects, in others they were tighter and that the total annual hours worked by pilots would not be changed.