Pilots and cabin crew on Tuesday staged demonstrations in several European airports against planned EU legislation they say could force them to fly excessive hours and threaten the safety of passengers, but critics accused them of scaremongering.
Protesters handed over petitions to authorities in Britain and staged actions at airports in Germany, Spain, Italy and other countries, calling for better safeguards for in-flight fatigue. Plans to standardize EU legislation are still being negotiated, but the pilots say they fear they could be asked to fly for over 12 hours throughout the night even though scientists claim safety is significantly endangered because of fatigue after 10 hours.
"We see that a tired pilot is a dangerous pilot and a tired cabin crew will endanger passengers safety in any case of emergency, said Francois Nardy, vice president of the European Cockpit Association. "Regrettably, this what the EU's decision-makers have not yet understood."
The Association of European Airlines counters that the current recommendation of the European Aviation and Safety Agency asks for 11 hours, which would make sure the EU has one of the strictest rules in the world. The European Commission, the executive body responsible for proposing legislation, is to make an official proposal later in the spring.
Supporters of shorter working days have been pressing for years for tighter regulation and enforcement of working hours and rest periods, driven by concerns about exhausted pilots working taxing schedules. They say the current proposal would be reduced to the lowest common denominator among EU nations to please commercial airlines seeking to survive in a tough competitive environment.
The new rules would harmonize working hours for pilots across the continent. In Britain, for example, pilots are not allowed to be on duty for longer than nine hours a day. Elsewhere in Europe, especially in the east, that limit is much higher. The ECA would like to see the toughest safety standards survive.
The ECA, which represents some 39,000 European pilots, claims that up to 20 percent of fatal accidents can be linked to aircrew fatigue and said that the EASA proposals were insufficient.
But some in the EU accused them of being alarmist.
"If pilots use arguments that are little credible and evoke images of crashing planes to play on the emotions of the public, then it seems wiser to adopt the expertise of EASA," Said El Khadraoui, a member of the European Parliament's transport committee, wrote in an op-ed piece in Belgium's De Standaard newspaper.
In the United States, regulations limit the maximum time a pilot can be scheduled to be on duty — including wait time before flights and administrative duties — to between nine and 14 hours. The total depends on the time of day pilots begin their first flight and the number of time zones crossed.
The maximum amount of time pilots can be scheduled to fly is limited to eight or nine hours, and pilots must be allowed a minimum of 10 hours to rest between duty periods, a two-hour increase over the old rules.
After a regional airline crash in February 2009 killed 50 people, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration acted over opposition of the airline industry and pilot unions to impose the new rules.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report from Washington.