Flight Time Limitations
[Relevant documents: First Report of the Transport Committee, Flight Time Limitations, HC 164, and the Government Response, HC 55 8 .]
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): We now come to our second debate of the afternoon on the flight time limitations applying to airline pilots and cabin crew. The subject is complex, but it has a direct and major effect on anyone who flies on a commercial aircraft. Fundamentally, it is about safety—regulating the hours and working practices of air crew so that they are not too tired to do their jobs and can keep passengers and crews safe. It is a matter of crucial importance.
Human error is associated with around 80% of aviation accidents. A major research study has shown that pilot fatigue contributes to between 15% and 20% of fatal air accidents. Fatigue makes it harder for people to concentrate, decreases reaction times, and increases the risk of people lapsing momentarily into unconsciousness or sleep. All such problems can prove fatal if the fatigued person is piloting an aircraft.
The most shocking statistic that we came across during our inquiry was from the British Airline Pilots Association. A survey of its members found that 43% of pilots reported involuntarily falling asleep while on the flight deck. Of those, 31% awoke to find their co-pilot asleep. That demonstrates why the subject of flight time limitations is so deserving of our attention.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), who is Chair of the Transport Committee, has raised that statistic; it certainly saves me raising it later on. It truly is shocking. Has she considered what the impact will be of the proposal to reduce the number of pilots on some long-haul flights from three to two given that they might both be asleep, or does she have further information about whether there might only have been two pilots on such aircraft at the time?
Mrs Ellman: I will take up that point in a moment.
Flight time limitations are a complex package of measures, dealing with how working hours are distributed over the year, start and finish times, rest periods, and the impact of time zones. UK airlines are currently regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. The major change that sparked our inquiry is that the rules are now being set at an EU level by the European Aviation Safety Agency, which is based in Cologne. As part of our inquiry we visited EASA, to discuss its work with the agency’s director.
The UK’s flight time limits are set by the CAA, which is permissible under EU regulations. In 2009, EASA started a process of establishing a Europe-wide scheme, and the UK Government are part of those negotiations, so the matter has not come on us suddenly. The advantage in establishing EU-wide flight time limitations is that safety standards across the EU are expected to rise, which will benefit passengers travelling on European carriers. However, there is also a real risk that well-established UK standards will be reduced as part of the process of achieving consensus across the EU. In addition,
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there are serious questions about EASA’s work, particularly in relation to how it has used scientific advice. More plainly, there are questions about how EASA did not use the latest scientific advice in assessing safe standards.
Many aspects of flight time limitations are relatively uncontentious, but some have generated passionate debate. I will focus this afternoon on the most hotly contested issues, and I will set out my Committee’s conclusions.
We looked at the proposals that were published by EASA in January this year. EASA has since published its formal opinion, which will now be reviewed by the European Commission before coming into law. I will be putting some questions to the Minister about EASA’s latest conclusions. Again, I stress that we are not talking about the EU suddenly announcing a decision without proper consultation. This country, including the Department for Transport, is part of that ongoing and long consultation, so it has an active part to play.
One of the main concerns of the Committee was about the number of hours that crew can fly overnight. The scientific advice provided to EASA has been clear in recommending that the proposed 11-hour duty period was too long and that the limit should be 10 hours. The Government told us that they would not press EASA to change its proposals, arguing instead for more active management of long overnight flight duty periods. In that, the Government were successful. But why is the Minister satisfied that pilots will be allowed to fly overnight for one more hour than scientific opinion considers to be the safe limit? That is an extremely serious matter.
Another concern was about the very long duty periods allowed for under EASA’s proposals. We heard that a pilot could be landing a plane after 19 hours at work and perhaps after 21 or 22 hours of being awake. The CAA described that scenario as “exceptionally rare”, but I do not think that anyone here today would be happy to fly if they knew that their pilot had been working around the clock, however unusual that situation is alleged to be.
EASA’s new proposals seem to improve that situation, with a cap on airport stand-by and associated flight duty of 16 hours. However, BALPA has put a new scenario to us that shows how other aspects of the rules could lead to a pilot working for almost 24 hours, if a long period on stand-by waiting for a delay to an aircraft to be resolved is followed by a normal duty period. I would be grateful for the Minister’s observations on a situation of that nature.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): Perhaps it would be helpful to the hon. Lady if I said that such a situation is not the intention of the proposal. A cap of 16 hours has been placed on combinations of airport stand-by and flight duty periods, to clarify the issue. I hope that she finds that helpful.
Mrs Ellman: I thank the Minister for his comments and I would be grateful to receive more detail on that cap, in a written response, so that we can consider it. There are concerns that there could be situations in which EASA’s 16-hour limit is breached. As I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members recognise, even after the short time I have been discussing the issue, the nature of the rules is complex. There are individual
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regulations that give rise to concern, and because they can be combined and have an impact on each other, the worry is that that might result in flying becoming less safe.
The Committee also raised concerns about the scheduling of frequent consecutive early starts, which can be particularly fatiguing. EASA requires early duties to be actively managed; we heard that response in relation to several of our recommendations. In principle, careful management of how rosters and duty patterns affect crew is, of course, sensible. However, it is not yet clear what careful management will actually involve and how it will be regulated. Will the Minister explain how UK airlines will discharge their responsibilities to manage fatigue actively, particularly where the potential for fatigue is high, such as in early starts? Will he also explain how the CAA will regulate early starts? Will he give a commitment that the CAA will step in and act against any UK airline that is not taking fatigue management seriously?
When we hear that fatigue is to be “managed”, that is superficially reassuring, but what might happen on a day when an aircraft is flying late and timetables must be met? Would short cuts be taken? Would a member of staff who raised the issue of management of fatigue be seen as disruptive rather than concerned about safety? Those are practical issues that must be addressed, because it is all too easy to hide under the cloak of generalities; I am sure that those generalities are well intentioned, but the test is whether they are applied in relation to a particular flight at a given time when there may be stressful conditions.
It is crucial that there is transparency about incidents involving fatigue and situations that might lead to fatigue, such as increases in duty periods at the commander’s discretion. Greater public awareness will help to drive complacency and poor practice out of the airline sector. It is also essential that the under-reporting of fatigue by aircrew is addressed. In 2011, just 20 reports of incidents caused by fatigue that endangered or could have endangered life were reported to the CAA. That is surely an example of gross under-reporting, given the other evidence about how common pilot fatigue is. The issue is not only what the rules say, particularly if those rules are of a general nature, but what happens on a specific occasion and whether a member of staff—a pilot, or indeed another member of the crew—might feel that if they make representations they would be seen as not supportive of their airline when in fact they were raising concerns about safety.
The CAA is now considering how to address under-reporting. It would be very helpful if the Minister told us exactly how the CAA is doing so, what actions will be taken and how any proposals that the CAA has would be monitored? The Government told us that they were committed to transparency and have asked the CAA to review what data can be put in the public domain without discouraging the reporting of incidents or identifying individuals. Again, I would be grateful if we received further information about what exactly is being planned.
One of our most serious concerns was about EASA’s treatment of scientific evidence in developing its flight time proposals. EASA started from the standpoint
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that flight time limitations are based on operational experience and negotiations with trade unions. Scientific advice about how fatigue affects people at work was overlooked. After being criticised for this omission, EASA commissioned three scientists to give independent advice, but then ignored some of that advice. The decision to press ahead with an 11-hour overnight duty period is the best example of that. During the course of our inquiry, we spoke to some of those scientists and we found that, following their report, EASA had had very little contact with them, which was a matter of concern to us.
We called on the Government to ensure that scientists have a more central role in further work by EASA on flight time limitations. In response, we were told that the CAA wants EASA to maintain an advisory group on flight time rules, calling on scientific and other expert advice. Is the Minister satisfied that EASA has developed its current process with little input from scientific advisers and has directly ignored some of the clear advice that it has received? Moreover, is he confident that from now on EASA will change its ways and pay more attention to experts in fatigue? This matter is of great concern and relates to the safety of pilots, the public and passengers. We do not want to have a calamity and then look back and ask, “Why was up-to-date scientific research not incorporated into decision making?” That is why I am posing these questions now.
Many other hon. Members will have been contacted by BALPA on other aspects of the rules that concern it. I want the Minister to address two further points that have been drawn to our attention.
First, we have been told that the Government could adopt the new flight time limitations and then supplement them with higher national standards using existing national legislation. Does the Minister think that is feasible? Is he considering it? One major change, which has been in discussion since 2009, is that Ministers and the Department have told us that it would no longer be possible for the UK to maintain higher standards than other parts of Europe. However, we have now been told that that is not the case. I would be grateful for some clarification from the Minister on that important point.
Secondly, will the Minister and the CAA consider setting up the UK’s own independent fatigue science advisory panel to help the CAA implement the new regulations safely and press EASA for any necessary changes? I cannot over-stress the importance that the Committee attaches to the impact of scientific evidence on fatigue, and how that is interpreted, on the complex combination of flight time limits.
Mr Burns: If it is helpful to the hon. Lady, may I deal with the point about adding on to the proposals? There seems to be some confusion. In the light of some people maintaining that we can add on if we wish to, we have checked yet again with the Commission and have been categorically assured that we cannot.
Mrs Ellman: I am sorry to hear the Minister’s response, but it at least clarifies how the Department sees the position.
I return to a theme of the previous debate—the interplay of decision making between the European Union and its agencies, and the UK. I want the Minister to acknowledge that the UK is not a passive recipient of
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what the EU decides; that we are part of the decision-making process, and we should advocate what we think is best. The Minister told us during our inquiry that the Department will represent the UK on the comitology committee, which will consider the draft Commission regulation. I want to know what policies the Department has been pursuing and what policies it will pursue as the process of decision making continues.
I have been told that following an EASA committee meeting last week, a number of member states expressed concerns, and that an extraordinary EASA meeting will be held to consider them. I am told that the UK was not one of the member states expressing those concerns. Is my information correct? Was the UK involved with other nations at the meeting last week in expressing concerns? If not, was it a conscious decision? Are there any points which the UK intends to continue to pursue before the matter progresses?
The inquiry was a complicated one for the Committee to undertake, because it was about not just one change but a number of changes and the overall impact of the combination of complex changes. It is an extremely important matter, because it is about public safety. There are clear benefits to setting minimum safety standards across the EU, but there is a clear risk that our own currently higher standards could be compromised. I hope that the UK Government will continue to fight for the highest possible standards. It is also important that there is an open and transparent culture in the airline industry, so that incidents involving fatigue can be reported without staff fearing that they would be reprimanded or viewed in a negative light. It is vital that lessons are learned and that up-to-date scientific advice is heeded.
Airlines, air crew, passengers and the Government all have a strong interest in achieving the highest safety standards, which I hope the new regulations, when they are implemented, will achieve. I want a categorical assurance that our Ministers are fully conscious of all the points that I have raised and that the Committee has considered, and that they will continue to pursue the issue, so that the highest possible safety standards are achieved.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and to take part in this important debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, who has comprehensively set out the scope of our inquiry, investigation, conclusions and proposals.
We have many debates on transport—different modes of transport, their economics, speed and social impact—but surely our most important debates are about safety. Any transport accident results in terrible cost, but clearly, the consequences of an airliner incident are particularly severe.
I have been concerned for some time about the proposals from the European Aviation Safety Agency. In addition to our work in the Select Committee, I have had meetings with the British Air Line Pilots Association. I also have a constituent who is a long-haul airline pilot, with
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whom I have had some discussions about the current situation and the potential consequences of the proposals.
[John Robertson in the Chair]
As has been said, the UK currently has among the strongest regulations in the world, but that does not mean that we are immune from problems. The shocking statistics have already been mentioned: 43% of pilots have reportedly fallen asleep involuntarily on a flight, and, even more disturbingly, 31% have woken up to find the co-pilot also asleep.
Mr Burns: May I put that in context? Those are not hard and fast statistics but a poll, which is slightly different.
Iain Stewart: I appreciate that it was a poll, but that finding must give us cause for concern. It gives us no room for complacency.
I want to back up those findings with an example, given to me by my constituent, of what it feels like to be a long-haul pilot. In a letter he sent me, he said:
“As I am sure you have experienced, occasional jet lag gives you a ‘hung over’, jaded feeling. Perpetual jet lag, as experienced by…long-haul pilots, gives you a much deeper seated, longer lasting ‘hung over’ feeling, with a reduction in your capacity for lucid, quality decision making…Additionally, normal sleep patterns take several weeks to return to normal, which is quite debilitating.”
That is what he feels. When we fly in an aeroplane, we put our lives in the pilots’ hands, and we must have a regime that ensures that we are as safe as we can be.
While there are concerns that Europe is harmonising and potentially reducing the standards in this country, the United States is moving in the other direction. It is looking at tightening up its regulations in response, I understand, to the Colgan air accident in New York in 2009, of which pilot fatigue was a proven cause.
As has been mentioned, the proposals for change to our regulations come from EU legislation that was passed in 2008. The possibility of the United Kingdom maintaining its own separate regulatory regime has been ruled out. I am not, in principle, against harmonisation of standards, and I completely accept and welcome the fact that for many countries in Europe, it will lead to an increase in standards. British passengers who, whether for business or for leisure, do not start or finish their journeys in the UK will rely on other European airlines, so that increase in safety is certainly welcome.
I also accept that the harmonisation of standards has potential economic benefits for airlines. They are operating in tough trading conditions, so anything that helps them to survive economically is welcome, but that cannot be at an unacceptable cost to safety.
I will not repeat all the concerns that the hon. Lady listed, but I want to give a couple of illustrations to show why there is cause for concern. Again, I go back to the example of my constituent, who flies long haul and quite often does the Los Angeles to Heathrow route. It is now exactly 3 o’clock, which is about the time the overnight flight from Los Angeles touches down in London. It is pretty windy today, so the landing would require all my constituent’s skills to be conducted safely. If he was flying today, he would have got out of bed at 2 o’clock this morning to get to the airport for a half-past 4 departure, which means that the flight time is 10 or 11 hours.
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Currently, planes have three pilots in the cockpit. That gives each of them a chance to have a sleep so that they can rest and refresh themselves. I am no expert in flying a plane—the Minister will be greatly relieved that I am not flying a plane—but for all the modern equipment that modern airliners have, flying them is still a very cerebral job. Pilots are required to make tricky decisions, and to balance different decisions, to make sure the plane flies safely.
As has been mentioned, however, that three-man crew would be reduced to two under the current proposals. That reduces the potential for the crew to sleep in the bunk, and they would have to sleep in their seats. That is not something I can do—I cannot sleep in a sedentary position—but that is what we are going to require pilots to do. To me, that increases risk, and I am not satisfied that the safety implications have been fully thought through.
I want to highlight a couple of other areas that BALPA is particularly concerned about. One is the fact that pilots will be legally allowed to land after being awake for 22 hours. They could also be forced to work up to seven early starts in a row; that has been proved to cause dangerous cumulative fatigue, which can be as dangerous as drink-driving, a fact that is not fully appreciated.
My other concern is one that the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety highlighted, and the hon. Lady also mentioned it. The proposals are complicated and interlinked; we are not looking at just one change. The advisory council’s concern was that, because the proposals were overly and unnecessarily complicated, airline companies would be able, inadvertently or deliberately, to misinterpret them, or to pick and choose from them, and they might make a decision in one area without realising its consequences elsewhere. Again, I have some concerns about that.
The decision we have to make is whether these changes amount to an acceptable risk. Any journey, on whatever mode of transport, involves an element of risk; whether we get behind the wheel of a car, get on a bus or train, walk somewhere or fly somewhere, we all accept some element of risk, but I am not yet convinced that the proposed changes fall within the bounds of acceptability.
I am particularly concerned that questions remain about whether the proposals are based on scientific evidence. I accept that the Government cannot act unilaterally in this matter, but they are part of the ongoing discussions in Europe, and I simply urge the Minister, in those discussions, to press his colleagues in Europe to base any changes on science, so that we can be as safe as possible in the sky.
I will end on the point the hon. Lady ended on: I do not want to come back to the House at some point in the future, after a disastrous air accident, to debate whether the changes that are happening now were responsible for that accident.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): Mr Robertson, it is a pleasure to see you presiding over the debate, sir. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon.
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Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who spoke so eloquently about safety, and I will return to his remarks later.
We welcome the Transport Committee’s first report of the 2012-13 Session. The key question for this whole debate is on the very first page of the Government response. The first sentence under the heading “General” says:
“The Government believes that the current draft of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s…proposals will not lead to a diminution of safety in the UK.”
Well, we have heard from two members of the Committee, who have quoted extensively from personal experience, constituents and BALPA submissions, and made it clear that there were a number of safety concerns about the regulations, and I want to emphasise some of them. Like the previous speakers, I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I seek the reassurance that I am sure he hopes to give us in due course.
Recommendation 1 of the Committee’s report says that the CAA should set
“out its strategy for enforcement and how it will ensure that operators comply”
with their responsibility. In their response, the Government say:
“The CAA will continue to work with EASA on this to ensure that comprehensive guidance material is established”,
adding that once the proposals have been finalised, there will be seminars and the rest of it. I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little more about the timing and about what progress is likely.
Recommendation 2 says the Government should follow up
“the CAA’s concerns about the frequency with which the maximum flight duty period can be exceeded during a scheduled seasonal period.”
The report is referring to the concerns of the CAA, not BALPA or the Transport Committee, and those concerns reflect the evidence the Committee received. The Government’s response says that they
“will raise this issue during EU discussions on this matter.”
That goes back to the point raised by the Chairman of the Committee, who asked about last week’s Transport Council, the UK Government’s response and, generally, where we are going on this issue.
Recommendation 3 calls
“on the CAA to investigate potential under-reporting of pilot fatigue”
so that there can be confidence in the procedures and structures put in place to protect the industry against bad practice. The Government response says:
“The Government accepts the recommendation to investigate the potential under-reporting of pilot fatigue and notes that this is already under consideration by the CAA.”
Again, could the Minister elaborate a little on how that will be undertaken?
As has been mentioned, recommendation 4 covers long-haul flights and oversight. Again, the Committee quotes the CAA as having expressed reservations about the proposed flight duty at night. My hon. Friend gave a good explanation of the concerns that have been expressed, given that the scientific evidence submitted to the European Aviation Safety Agency makes it absolutely clear that the 11-hour flight duty period at night is too long. The Committee recommends
“that the Government press EASA for a lower limit”.
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The secondary question in respect of whether that was going to be done—I will perhaps come back to this a little later—is about the weight given to scientific evidence. My hon. Friend said that the Committee had spoken to the scientists, and as the report goes on to say, the Minister said that their evidence was part of the information used. The question asked is: what is the balance of objectivity? How much weight is given to the scientific evidence? How much weight is given to other submissions and where does the balance lie in terms of the Government arriving at their conclusions?
In their response to recommendation 4, the Government state that additional requirements will be included in the final draft of the impending rules. I am not sure whether that is covered by the Minister’s saying that that is misinformation and that there are not going to be any additional requirements.
Recommendation 6 states that information provided on “commander’s discretion” should be collated and made publicly available. The Government do not believe that publication of a single figure on discretion usage or even an operator’s average discretion usage would provide any safety benefit. I must question the logic of that on the basis that not publishing the data looks as though there is something to hide. Publishing the data, even though it is only a single piece of evidence, gives the safety community, the Transport Committee and others the opportunity to look at it and say, “Is it a single figure? Is it insignificant, or is it a single figure tip of an iceberg? Is there a lot more to this, and do we need to have a look at it?”
The Government’s response states that the CAA will review what information can be published without compromising the integrity of the reporting systems and how best it can be presented to ensure that it is intelligible to the public. I am not sure whether that demeans the public’s intelligence in terms of identifying good safety information. Most of the information will be analysed by experts, professionals and organisations such as the Transport Committee. The CAA will be deciding what can and cannot be published, but when it comes to safety, we want the greatest possible transparency so that everybody can have confidence in what is going on. Will the Minister comment on not publishing the data? After all, it is the commander’s discretion—we are talking about the pilots in charge actually making a judgment.
In recommendation 8, the Committee states:
“The Government should press EASA to amend its proposals to give national aviation authorities the power to monitor”.
That goes back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) that the Government say that there is no discretion—
Mr Burns: No additional advice.
Jim Fitzpatrick: There will be no additional reporting. But in their response to the Transport Committee report, the Government say that the rules will fully address the Committee’s concern on the issue of oversight.
Finally, in recommendation 9, the Committee states:
“we would have expected scientific advice to have had a more prominent role in the rule-making process.”
That is the point that I was referring to earlier in one of the other recommendations and the question about the balance of consideration given to the scientific evidence, which the Government in their response state is one
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element of the development of the regulations. But surely scientific evidence would carry greater weight than the comments from an operator? Perhaps the Minister will outline what the balance might be.
Dr Rob Hunter, the head of flight safety for BALPA, has written to us. He has been quoted by hon. Members during the debate. He raises several concerns. I will mention three to reinforce that which has already been referred to. The first is:
“The provision for airlines to extend flying hours rather than it being a Captain’s sole decision.”
The second, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South is:
“A reduction in the number of pilots needed on many long-haul flights, so that, for example, a London to Los Angeles flight which would currently require three pilots would only require two”.
So at least one of them might be awake during the whole flight if 43% or 31% of the others are asleep. The third is:
“An increase of over 30% more time on home standby so that pilots could be landing aircraft after having been awake for over 24 hours.”
I heard the Minister’s comment about the 16-hour time limit. Will he reinforce that in his remarks? BALPA is a representative organisation, but it has a very strong safety record and a high reputation within the industry. I know that the Minister would not in any way impugn that. However, the fact that it is raising these issues obviously means that it has to be taken seriously.
The submission, which I am sure the Minister has seen, goes on to say that there is no increase in the hours, so this is not a protection issue in terms of carrying out more work. This is about the way in which the work is actually structured. I know from my time in the fire service, and we have seen it in other businesses, that sometimes managers think they can reconfigure the hours to get greater productivity or greater efficiency, when all they are really doing is tinkering with the mechanism. There is no increase in hours here. The validity of BALPA’s concerns that this is a safety issue are underscored in that respect.
BALPA gave evidence to the Treasury Committee on waking hours and provided specific examples of possible shifts. I will not repeat them, because they have been referred to by the Chair of the Select Committee and her colleague, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South, and I have referred to them earlier.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside introduced the report and effectively outlined the EU consultation and the role of the UK Government. I have asked the Minister about our role within the EU. My hon. Friend raised the key questions of reporting procedures, the scientific evidence and separate national standards, and she sought reassurance on those issues.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South, as we all know, has established a sound profile on the Transport Committee. He has a reputation as a diligent member of that Committee, as demonstrated by his attendance here today, as well as by his speech. He reinforced the safety concerns of his colleague, the Committee Chair, and lucidly contrasted the different outcomes when harmonising EU standards through regulation. In some countries we will see a lowering of standards and in other countries they will be raised. What is the balance
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for the UK aviation industry and the travelling public? He gave a graphic illustration of what is at stake here, relating the experience of his constituent, who, hopefully, has now safely landed and is on his or her way through the terminal.
In conclusion, nobody here is saying that safety is anywhere other than at the forefront of Government thinking. However, when BALPA and the Transport Committee, two very reputable organisations in their different arenas, raise so many questions about safety, it is the duty of the official Opposition to reinforce that. We look forward to the Minister’s comments and we look for some reassurance. Hopefully, when we get to the end of this process, we will have a safer industry and not the reverse.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Simon Burns): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Again, I thank the Transport Committee not only for its report on what is, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said in his concluding remarks, a very important subject, but for the opportunity to debate it today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse on their speeches, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on his powerful and interesting contribution.
I want to go through the overarching issues as seen from the Government’s point of view and how we believe they should be dealt with, and then I will move on to some of the specific questions raised. I recognise that there has been—understandably—considerable interest in the proposals, not only in the aviation industry but in a wider field. The proposals arouse passion, concern and interest, and it is crucial that we make sure that we get it right.
We have heard examples of pilots falling asleep on duty and concerns that, under the new proposals, they may have to land aircraft after being awake for 22 hours. For that reason, I have a number of important points to make at the outset.
First, the safety of the UK travelling public remains of paramount importance to us, and it always will. That has always defined our approach to air safety regulation in the UK, as it defined the approach of the previous Government, of which the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was a member, and it continues to define our approach to air safety negotiations in Europe.
Secondly, decisions on safety matters must be informed by the best evidence available, not just scientific evidence, important as that is, but the wealth of evidence gathered from day-to-day operations. Thirdly, safety rule-makers need to remain objective and to base their decisions on independent and impartial advice.
In the UK, we are fortunate to have the Civil Aviation Authority as our specialist adviser on air safety. The CAA is one of the world’s most respected aviation safety regulators. In Europe, the CAA is the national authority with the most experience of fatigue management. It is independent of Government and, more importantly, it is free from the influence of the aviation industry and
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other interest groups. The Government and I have the utmost confidence in the CAA’s expertise in this area, and it is right that we should continue to be guided by its independent advice.
The CAA has been at the forefront of work to develop a harmonised set of air safety rules across Europe. The European Aviation Safety Agency is responsible for developing those rules. In doing so, the EASA works closely with national agencies such as the CAA. Harmonised rules are important as there is a single market in air services within the EU. The single market has ensured real competition, benefiting passengers through lower fares and greater choice. Different safety standards in different member states, however, can distort the market and could, if some do not provide a robust level of safety, put flight crews and passengers at risk.
Mrs Ellman: I agree that the Civil Aviation Authority is highly respected and has a very good reputation; nevertheless there are some concerns because, during the course of our inquiry, it expressed reservations about the proposed flight duty period at night but did not object to the European Aviation Safety Agency’s decision, even though it went against scientific advice. The CAA felt the situation could be “actively managed.” In practice, on a given day and in a given crisis or with given pressure of time, how could such a situation be managed? That query does not challenge the CAA as such, but I am asking whether, in not following scientific advice, the CAA has put too much faith in the situation being managed, when in reality that might not happen on every occasion.
Mr Burns: The hon. Lady raises an important issue. I will return to this, but, yes, I do have faith in the CAA, because I do not think it is doing what she suggests. I will return to that when I address a number of questions, because it is an important issue and the hon. Lady and others beyond the House, who will be reading the comments of all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, need an answer.
Jim Fitzpatrick: This is a small point, but it has yet to be stated in our deliberations and the Minister may well put something on the record in due course.
We finished considering the Lords amendments to the Civil Aviation Bill on Tuesday. The Bill transfers massive new responsibilities to the Civil Aviation Authority, with which everyone is quite comfortable. Obviously—I am sure this will happen, but I want the Minister to put it on the record—we want safety to remain paramount in the CAA’s responsibilities. Given that the organisation will grow in numbers, organisational strength and structure, will the safety element of its role grow commensurately?
Mr Burns: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to reiterate that safety is paramount. Among other things, safety is the responsibility of the CAA. The CAA’s commitment, and the amount it devotes to ensuring that the safety of the aviation industry and airlines in this country is paramount, will continue, unaffected by the legislation.
I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure whether it has reassured him, because he has not indicated either way, but I hope it does.
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Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to the Minister. Obviously, I fully accept his assurances. What was going through my mind was that, notwithstanding those reassurances and the respect I have for the CAA, ultimately we are going to disagree about the conclusions that it has reached on some of the issues we have raised. Unless the Minister can give us further reassurance, there will be question marks in our mind about the length of flight times, the reporting procedures and the balance of evidence. We have to go along with the Government’s objective analysis of all the evidence and with their conclusions because we cannot change them. Obviously, I accept the Minister’s assurances.
Mr Burns: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s last point. I hope that by the time I sit down I will have completely reassured him. If I were a betting man, I would not place a wager on that, but I will do my best to seek to assuage his concerns as much as possible.
Importantly, different safety standards in different member states can distort the market and could, if some do not provide a robust level of safety, put flight crews and passengers at risk, which we all find unacceptable and are united in wanting to address. The harmonised rules will apply directly to all EU airlines, ensuring that UK citizens flying within Europe enjoy the same high safety standards, regardless of where the airline is based.
The flight time limitation requirements are a package of closely interrelated measures that address a number of issues relating to fatigue, including work load, sleep and body clocks, in several different ways. Work load is addressed through setting limits on the length of duty times. The more intensive the work load in terms of take offs and landings, the lower the limit. Additionally, there are medium and long-term limits on duty hours to prevent cumulative fatigue.
Adequate sleep is ensured by the establishment of minimum rest requirements. Body clock issues are addressed by adjusting duty limits according to the time of day the duty starts. There are additional limits if crews are not acclimatised to the local time zone.
I emphasise again that those requirements and limits are closely interrelated. For their effectiveness to be properly understood, they need to be considered together as a package.
Limits are only one aspect of the new proposal. Airlines will also be required to put in place a number of new management processes, including flight time specification schemes tailored to the type of operation being undertaken. Airlines will have to ensure that schedules are planned so that aircrews can operate safely in all circumstances. All aircrews, rostering staff and their managers will have to undergo regular training in fatigue management. The training programme will have to be approved by the CAA.
Additionally, all airlines will be required under separate legislation to have safety-management systems. Under the EASA proposals, those will have to have a specific fatigue risk-management element in certain circumstances. The CAA will be responsible for approving and monitoring airlines’ safety management systems and flight time specification schemes. Airlines will no longer be able to rely solely on complying with fixed limits on flight times. Instead, they will also need to demonstrate how they are managing crew duties to prevent the risk of
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fatigue arising in the first place. This part of the EASA proposal is a major step forward. It is very much in line with UK thinking and with international best practice in this field.
Although some provisions of the EASA proposals are slightly less restrictive than the current UK requirements, others are more restrictive. However, as I have said, the new flight time limitations requirements are designed to work as a package of measures. It does not make sense to draw comparisons with the current UK rules by looking at specific limits in isolation.
The CAA looked carefully at the package of new proposals and considered how the various elements will interact. It has assured me that, in its opinion, the package of measures will not lead to any reduction in safety for UK airlines. Moreover, the new proposals are much more stringent than the current EU rules. EASA has identified more than 30 separate provisions where this is the case. For example, it provides for safety improvements in addressing cumulative fatigue, including through extended recovery rest periods twice a month; increasing rest to compensate for time-zone differences and disruptive schedules; and expanding the application of the most restrictive flight duty period to 12 hours between 5 pm and 5 am. That will lead to a substantial improvement in safety across Europe. It is a good deal for UK passengers in today’s single market in air services. When they use any airline from any EU member state, passengers will be protected by the same high standards as those followed by UK airlines.
This is also a good deal for UK airlines, which will no longer have to compete against other EU airlines that follow less stringent rules. It has been suggested that the UK should consider opting out of some or all of the proposed rules or enhancing them. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside raised the matter, but I have to say that this is not an option. We have checked, because there has been a belief that we could add to the proposals that EASA is bringing forward. However, the European Commission has once again confirmed categorically that no member state could do that. It is the package that is accepted. No member state can add on something if it wishes to and, fortunately, no member state can take away anything, either—that is the other side of the coin—which some member states might be interested in doing.
It is fair to say that the Transport Committee itself concluded that the legislation under which these provisions are made rules out the option of a separate UK regulatory regime or an add-on, but I accept that Committee members will have wondered about that in the light of other information that has been bandied around and been in circulation since the Committee produced its report.
I stress that the proposals are currently only an opinion of the European safety regulator. The European Commission has yet to issue its own legislative proposal and we will reserve our final judgment until we see it. We will not vote in favour of the regulation unless the CAA advises us that it provides an appropriate level of safety.
I should like to say something about the use of scientific evidence in developing the proposals, because several hon. Members have raised this matter. Some have expressed concern about this. During the development of its proposals, EASA reviewed more than 50 scientific
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studies and employed three independent scientists to review its proposals. It also took into account a large amount of operational data and experience across the EU. EASA provided, in the regulatory impact assessment published alongside its opinion, a detailed assessment of the evidence and advice that it considered.
The CAA gave this House, in its evidence to the Transport Committee in February, a detailed account of the procedures followed and the evidence taken into account by both it and EASA. I will not repeat that evidence here. The important thing is that I am satisfied with the CAA’s assurance—that view is shared by EASA and by the CAA’s counterparts in other member states—that a thorough, transparent process has been followed in this case.
The draft legislation imposes a legal obligation on EASA to review the effectiveness of the rules three years after they have come into force. EASA has also said that it plans to carry out further research in a number of areas, to help improve understanding of crew fatigue. The CAA will work closely with EASA to ensure that this research is carried out effectively.
As I have said, we have yet to see a legislative proposal from the Commission. I repeat, to provide reassurance I hope, that we will reserve our final judgment until the CAA has had the opportunity to review that proposal when it is produced.
Mrs Ellman: I feel reassured by some of the Minister’s statement, but on the scientific evidence, I wish to make it clear that the Committee spoke to scientists involved in giving advice and there is concern about the current proposals. It may not be a unanimous decision, but there certainly is concern. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind as he continues to consider the issue.
Mr Burns: I appreciate that. I will certainly bear it in mind. However, from the evidence that I have been given and conversations that I have had with the CAA, I am confident that a thorough review of the 50 studies has been done. I do not want to be flippant, but I suspect that scientists can, at times, be a bit like economists, in that they will have different views or will place emphasis differently on solutions to problems or issues, and that might be a part of what is behind the discussions or conversations the hon. Lady has had. But that does not detract from my initial point that I am confident, from the assurances that I have had, that the review of 50 independent scientific studies by independent scientists has been done thoroughly and properly.
I repeat that we have not yet seen the legislative proposals from the Commission and we will reserve our final judgment until the CAA has had the opportunity to review those proposals and form a view. I hope that that is reassuring.
I shall answer questions in no particular order. I may have misheard the hon. Lady and if I did I hope that she will forgive me. I think she mentioned an EASA meeting last week. Is that correct?
Mrs Ellman: Yes. I was informed recently that there was an EASA meeting last week and that a number of member states—not the UK—raised concerns and that,
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as a result, an emergency EASA meeting was called. I was seeking confirmation or otherwise of whether that is so.
Mr Burns: That is helpful, because I was genuinely confused. The advice that I had—I will check it, because it is at such variance with what the hon. Lady has been told—is that we are not aware of any meeting that took place last week. We are aware of an EASA committee meeting in October at which the proposals were discussed, and no member state raised any significant concerns about them. As I said, we will check that, and I will ensure that she is informed of the results.
Both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse asked a number of questions arising from the recommendations of the Select Committee report. As both of them will know, the Government have responded to those recommendations. The responses that we gave are still our responses, and we still believe in them. I could go through them one by one, but I suspect that Opposition Members in particular would not want to hear the sound of my voice for quite that long. However, I can confirm, particularly on the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman, that our responses on all issues linked directly to the recommendations of the Select Committee report are as valid today as when we published our response. I hope that is satisfactory.
Jim Fitzpatrick: I certainly hear what the Minister is saying. In one or two of my comments, I was acknowledging the Government’s published response while seeking a bit more information. For example, as he says, the new regulations have not been introduced, so I was asking what the time frame was for EASA coming forward, the Commission considering regulations and national consultation. Recognising what the Government have said in response to the Select Committee recommendations, I was seeking elaboration on one or two points, not reiteration. I certainly do not expect the Minister to read into the record the Government’s lengthy responses to the Select Committee recommendations.
Mr Burns: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The only downside of not doing so is that people will not have the opportunity to hear once again the wisdom of the Government’s responses to the excellent report by the hon. Lady’s Committee. However, I accept what he says.
He talked about the time scale for adoption. As I said, we are waiting for the Commission to introduce legislative proposals. We expect that the regulation adopting the implementing rules will come into force next summer, but will allow a transitional period of two years before the requirements become applicable. That is the best advice I have at the moment. As he will appreciate, it is outside our control, but we assume that EASA and the European Commission intend to stick as closely to that timetable as possible.
The hon. Lady asked how the CAA will tackle the under-reporting of fatigue. I have a considerable amount of sympathy with her point, because I believe that the problem is potentially serious if it is happening on the scale of the poll that she referred to. I do not cast doubts on the poll, but we lack clear evidence of the extent of the problem. However, as we said in our response to the Committee’s recommendation, the CAA
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is investigating possible under-reporting. I understand from what she said, conversations that I have had with the British Airline Pilots Association and my correspondence on the subject with constituents of mine that in certain cases, there may be an incentive for people to under-report for a variety of reasons. We must change the culture. We need an open and transparent system so that we know exactly what the level of the problem is, if there is one, and how to minimise it. It would seem from the poll that the problem has persisted under the existing rules, never mind what some people say might happen under any changes.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The Minister gave a good explanation of the new reporting procedures and fatigue management systems that airlines will have to introduce. That is reassuring, because it is far more structured, but one point of the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside raised is this. Notwithstanding that the airlines will compile their own data, how does that compare with the confidential reporting systems that exist at the moment, in which pilots can report directly to the CAA? Will those lines of communication still exist? It might be easier for a pilot to send a confidential e-mail or, more likely, a verbal report to the CAA if they want to tell somebody that they are worried. Telling their employer could be entirely different; they might be worried about future employment, promotion prospects and so on.
Mr Burns: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As he said, an individual would find it easier to report directly to the CAA, so that brings more openness and honesty to the reporting system. He is absolutely right, and that is why the system will continue. Individuals will continue to have the opportunity to make contact through that channel.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside talked about what happened to flights that reached the maximum limit permitted under the proposals and the need to
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report to national aviation authorities as part of an open and transparent approach. The new EU implementing rules governing the oversight of operators will come into force later this year. The rules will give national aviation authorities the power and responsibility to monitor all aspects of the application and performance of any flight time limitation.
The Government share the Committee’s concern on the theoretical length of the flighty duty period. EASA has acted on the UK’s advice and amended the proposal to limit the combination of stand-by and flight duty periods to a maximum of 16 hours, as I mentioned to the hon. Lady in an intervention during her comments. I hope that goes some way to reassuring her.
To the best of knowledge, and looking at my notes, I think I have covered the main points made by the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside and for Poplar and Limehouse, as well as embracing the spirit of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South. In concluding, I thank the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the Transport Committee for their work and for the care that they took to produce an important and interesting report. We considered it carefully before responding. I have sought to reassure hon. Members about more of the background, the Government’s attitude and what we and the CAA have been doing.
I will conclude on this final point—made for the third time—to ensure that people can be reassured, as I hope they can: we will wait for the publication of the proposals and the CAA’s final recommendations and views before we take any definitive action on this important issue. The Government are as determined today as they were yesterday, and as the previous Government were, to ensure that the safety of passengers and those working on aircraft and in the aviation industry is paramount.
Resolved, That the sitting be now adjourned.— (Mr Simon Burns.)