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EASA FTLs two years on

by Dr Rob Hunter BALPA, Head of Flight Safety

We are now some two years post the implementation of EASA FTLs and whether you regard the new ruleset as a success, or failure, rather depends on what you believe to have been the intention behind the new rules. Ostensibly, the new rules were to harmonise safety standards across Europe and to bring about a high level of safety. 

However, as we came to understand during the development of the rules, the scientific principles that were meant to guide the formulation of the new rules were relegated to being more of platitude than substance. 

In our view, it is likely that none of the members of the EASA working group that developed the regulations held any qualification in medical or fatigue science and the group never sought the advice of a medical expert in any substantive way. 

These concerns formed a basis of a complaint by BALPA to the European Ombudsman. The complaint was investigated over two years. EASA took the position that it would not reveal the qualifications of the working group members as this constituted personal data. 

The Ombudsman took a different view and asked that EASA reveal the qualifications. EASA simply chose not to comply with this recommendation. Further when asked who had provided medical advice to the EASA working group the EASA Executive Director simply stated that there was “medical input”. 

On a day-to day basis, in order to understand the problem of EASA FTLs you need to understand the basic architecture of the rules. Essentially, they are in three parts: 

1.    An overarching rule set that says things to the effect that pilots shouldn’t fly when fatigued and operators shouldn’t roster fatiguing duties.
2.    A categorical rule set, often misleadingly referred to as a ’prescriptive‘ rule set that describes the numbers of hours that can and can’t (proscription) be flown.
3.    A fatigue risk management component that allows exceptions to the rules if there is a safety case for the exception. 

To illustrate the importance of the overarching rule set I’ll use an example from road safety. Let’s say in this recent snow you were driving at 29 mph in a residential back street at school finishing time and a child runs out from between the parked cars – you skid and knock down and injure that child. You might well find yourself charged with driving without due care and attention because even though you were compliant with the categorical rules; being within the speed limit, licenced, insured MOT’d etc. you were still in breach of an overarching requirement. 

Here, in the world of driving safety, overarching rules are enforced. However, in many aviation settings and certainly in the FTLs arena, overarching rules are not enforced and so in effect the categorical rule set becomes the law. The problem is that the EASA FTLs categorical rule set allows combinations of duties that we believe are not safe. When we have complained to the CAA about this the CAA response is disengaged. Indeed, in the entire history of the CAA no operator has ever been prosecuted for rostering fatiguing duties.

The problem that we see with FRMS is perhaps also best illustrated with another driving analogy. The problem with an operator assessing their own risk and providing a justification of some more enabling or profitable practice is the conflicting interest that they have in doing this. Imagine if instead of having the police enforce speeding limits, drivers were allowed to set their own speed limits and report themselves to the police if they exceeded operator determined limits. The hazard of speeding would likely increase.

Judging by the numbers of reports that we receive of fatigue in pilots and the results of our recent member survey in which pilots once again identified fatigue as the major flight safety threat, the effect of EASA FTLs has been to increase pilot fatigue; this is not in our view surprising.