Public opinion misled by the Commission on air transport safety

TRAN, Committee on Transport and Tourism meeting (EU Parliament Audiovisual Services).

European Parliament. TRAN, Committee on Transport and Tourism meeting (EU Parliament Audiovisual Services).

The Transport committee of the European Parliament (TRAN) blocked yesterday with 21 votes to 13 an EU Commission’s proposal to rearrange flight times for pilots and cabin crews. If the uninformed reader had only the chance to read just the Press release issued afterwards by the responsible, or rather irresponsible, Commissioner and Commission Vice President Siim Kallas, he or she would have thought that the poor man is fighting to secure better safety conditions for air passengers, and those legislators wanted to undermine it. Of course the truth is exactly the opposite. Commission’s misleading attitude shows even from the title of its Press release, issued after the Parliament vote, reading like that: “Aviation Safety: Parliament Committee vote puts at risk key measures to improve aviation safety”. Let’s follow the story right from the start.

Sleeping in the cockpit

Some days ago in view of this parliamentary vote, the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) published the results of a survey within its membership about their working practices. According to Press reports the inquiry was commissioned because it had become known that on 13 August this year the two pilots on an Airbus passenger flight were asleep at the same time, while the aircraft was flown on the autopilot.

The results of the survey were quite frightening for us simple air passengers. Around 56% of Balpa members admitted having fallen asleep at least once, while flying a plane during the past three months. What is even more unacceptable 29% of those who fell asleep while flying the plane, when woken found that the co-pilot was also asleep. In short that Airbus was not the only one plane flying above Europe with both pilots sleeping. Out of the 500 pilots who participated in the survey 43% answered that their abilities were drastically undermined at least once a month during the past six months from physical fatigue, and 84% said this had happened at least once during the past six months. 49% of them maintained that pilot fatigue was the gravest safety risk in air flights, three times greater than any other danger.

According to industry sources what was at stake yesterday at the European Parliament was clearly a pronounced deterioration in pilots working conditions. The new rules were to allow them to land an aircraft after being awake for 22 hours and being forced to work at seven straight early starts than currently three. It was exactly all that the European Parliament Transport Committee refused to approve. The Civil Aviation Authority however has said it supports the Commission’s proposal and commented that the incident of 13 August with the two pilots sleeping at that Airbus flight “was an isolated incident”.

No changes allowed

Under the standard procedure, the European Parliament has the right of scrutiny over Commission implementing measures on flight time and may oppose such measures, but cannot change them. Given that, the legislators couldn’t choose and vote for the positive closes that existed in the Commission’s proposal, so they had to deny it altogether, because of the paramount deterioration of safety it meant, if passed as it was. Negative also for this EU Commission initiative was the opinion expressed by Louise Ellman, chairwoman of the Transport Committee of the British House of Commons, who said she supports the “concerns of Balpa that the proposed by the EU Commission change of rules, may put at risk air passengers safety”.

Now it’s the turn of the full EU Parliament’s to decide. The full house has until 25 October to decide by an absolute majority, whether it will follow the transport committee and oppose the draft measures. If so, the current rules on flight time limitations will stand. The plenary date for the vote is yet to be confirmed.

A furious Commissioner

Kallas appeared particularly furious with Parliament’s denial. A relevant Press release issued by the Commission’s Press Service yesterday night, was unacceptable on many accounts, but firstly under the most relaxed professional code of journalism. It contained this totally biased phrase: “Following the Transport Committee’s vote this afternoon to reject proposals to improve crew protection against fatigue, Vice-President Kallas said:…”. Before informing us about what Kallas said, the author of this Press release rushed to take the biased position that the European Parliament has blocked a proposal to improve “crew protection against fatigue”, that Kallas was presumably for. Even if this was true, the journalist should have left the Commissioner to say it.

In any case what Kallas said was that: “This vote puts at risk key measures to improve aviation safety…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.”

If Kallas tells the truth and already, “there are strong EU rules in place”, then why 56% of pilots fall asleep once a month while flying a plane and on 29% of those occasions the second pilot is also asleep? As for the scientific evidence Kallas invokes they are really quite against his side. Balpa’s survey is adamant over the results on air passenger safety of the “strong EU rules in place”.

It’s a pity how easily this Commissioner has taken the side of the employers and paid no attention whatsoever to what the trade unions and the professional bodies of the air transport industry had to say. And they had a lot. Kallas seem to hope that the plenary of the EU Parliament will reverse the decision of its TRAN Committee. However this is a rather improbable eventuality. He has better work hard on the needed changes in his proposal to improve safety in air transports and submit it again to Parliament. And by the way he must tell his Press officers that their first duty is to serve impartial journalism and then the Commission. Probably he hasn’t grasp himself that also a commissioner’s first duty is impartiality.

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