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Passenger safety at risk after EU rejects changes to pilots’ hours, transport official warns

But transport commissioner criticised 'misleading scare stories and false claims'

The European Union’s top transport official has warned that passenger safety could be at risk after a European Parliament committee on Monday rejected changes to pilots’ flight and rest times.

Pilots’ unions had said before Monday’s vote that the proposed amendments could leave pilots “dangerously fatigued”, arguing that, under the intricate new rules, some could be forced to land an aircraft after 22 hours without sleep.

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) released a study last week showing that more than half of the pilots questioned had fallen asleep in the cockpit. Their report came after a case emerged of both a pilot and a co-pilot nodding off in an Airbus during a long-haul flight.

But the EU’s transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, criticised what he called “misleading scare stories and false claims”, and said that their proposals would have made Europe’s skies safer. “This vote puts at risk key measures to improve aviation safety – safety is the first priority for the EU and the sole objective of this revision,” he said in a statement.

He continued: “Pilot fatigue is a very serious issue and that’s why there are already strong EU rules in place. This proposal goes a step further bringing together the best safety practices from all EU member states and the latest scientific evidence.”

MEPs sitting in the Parliament’s transport and tourism committee rejected the European Commission proposals 20 to 13. The proposals will now be debated and possibly amended, before being put to a full vote at the 766-member European Parliament later this month.

While the EC had said the proposals would lower pilots’ working hours in most of the EU’s 28 member states, unions had interpreted the maths differently and are pushing for lower limits.

Combining the proposed flight and on-call limits, the European Cockpit Association calculated that a pilot could be allowed to land a plane after being awake for almost a full day: the equivalent, they claimed, of being four times over the blood-alcohol limit for flying.

In Britain, a pilot’s night-time flying is capped at 10 hours, Balpa says, while the new EU proposals would have pushed it up to 11 hours.

Jim McAuslan, the general secretary of Balpa, welcomed yesterday’s vote, and said they would continue to lobby MEPs before it goes to a plenary session at the end of October. “The commission must now go back to the drawing board and work with pilots and scientists to develop rules on flying time and tiredness that are based on evidence and expert experience,” he said.

Mr Kallas hit back yesterday with his own examples of how the rules would be applied, saying that if the legislation is not passed, pilots and crew on rest time would have to sleep sitting up in economy, while some member states would have no limits at all on maximum stand-by and flight times. The night-time flying cap would remain at the current 11 hours and 45 minutes.

Aviation industry associations also backed the changes to the rules, saying they would improve safety across the continent.