HC Deb 16 June 2004 vol 422 cc268-74WH

4 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)

I am very grateful to have secured this debate on the important and topical subject of limits on flying hours for airline pilots. I applied for the debate because I was approached by a number of my constituents who are airline pilots and who were concerned about the proposals under discussion at European level. I have considered the points that they raised and they are very important. They certainly deserve highlighting further in Parliament, so I am glad to be able to do that and I look forward to the response from the Minister.

The issue is topical because, as the Minister knows, Europe has for some time been considering plans to harmonise flight time limitations across the European Union. Only last week, Ministers discussed the proposals at the European Union's Transport Council. Owing to the fact that five countries opposed the proposals, they will be discussed further and I am glad to raise the issue today. I hope that because the Minister will have more chance to pursue the matter through the Council, he will be able to take account of the points made in the debate and the concerns outside the House.

Until now, it has been up to each country to set its limits on flying times. I am not opposed to a framework for the regulation of flying hours across the European Union; indeed I strongly welcome it. There should be Europe-wide regulations and standards to maintain high levels of safely and to ensure fair competition. However, the issue is about the level at which that regulation should be set. The UK currently has the best and strictest system of flight time limitations in Europe. No doubt partly as a result of that, our aviation safety record is the best in Europe, and we must not see a lessening of that. There must be a levelling up of European standard to match the high levels of safety provided for UK passengers and aircrews. If the proposals go forward as they stand, the fear is that the UK's high safety standards will be compromised.

The detailed proposals drafted after amendment are not yet widely available. Having tried to understand some of their complexities, I know that it is difficult to make like-for-like comparisons between current UK and proposed European standards. The bottom line is that the proposals under discussion in Europe would lead to pilots in the UK working longer hours, which concerns my constituents and me.

The bystander may ask, "What's the problem with airline pilots working an extra hour or two? How can that make such an important difference to airline safety?" When it comes to aviation safety, it can make quite a lot of difference. In an extreme case, it can make the difference between safety and a plane crash—between a safe journey and a tragic accident that could, at worst, cost hundreds of lives.

The European Cockpit Association has quoted research carried out in the United States by the Federal Aviation Authority which points to a greatly increased probability of accidents with an increase in duty time and, in particular, cumulative duty time. The research suggested that the probability of an accident increases sixfold if the length of a pilot's duty in the air increases to 13 hours from 9 hours. As the European Transport Safety Council pointed out in a recent report: The operational demands of the aviation industry inevitably entail shift work, night work, irregular work schedules, unpredictable work schedules, and time zone changes". All those factors pose challenges to human physiology. Since they relate to fatigue and performance impairment, they pose a risk to safety.

There has been a considerable degree of data collected over the past two decades on transport accidents and fatigue. In the case of commercial aviation operations, it is suggested that about 70 per cent of fatal accidents are related to human error. Not all of those will be caused by fatigue, but one reasonable estimate suggests that the risk of fatigue of the operating crew contributed about 15 to 20 per cent. to the overall accident rate in commercial aviation. It is therefore essential that we do not add to that risk through the changes that could come about from harmonisation of rules in Europe.

It is particularly important that flight duty periods are limited in line with scientific research in the area, which has been carried out in this country and elsewhere. It is essential that sufficient minimum rest periods ensuring quality sleep are guaranteed, and that provision is made for time zone transitions so that the effects of jet lag are dealt with.

Unfortunately, according to the advice that I have been given, many expert bodies believe that the current European proposals still do not make a sufficient commitment to limiting flight duty periods or guaranteeing minimum rest periods. Indeed, the case for the regulation of time zone transitions was not even included in the draft regulation of the original proposals. I am told that that is the view of the European Committee for Aircrew Scheduling and Safety, and I have no doubt that the Minister will be aware of its report some months ago. It concluded: Based on our current understanding of physiological and psychological factors contributing to fatigue in aviation operations, it is our view that there would be a significant increase in the risk of fatigue-related incidents and accidents if operators were permitted to operate to the limits specified in the EP-proposal. The committee has not had an opportunity to comment on the most recent amended proposals, but there is still concern that they could have the same results that are highlighted in the above quotation.

I am aware that new regulations would not compel UK airlines to increase the hours operated by their pilots, and I know that several UK airlines have said that the changes will be unlikely to affect them. However, it is naive to assume that commercial pressures will not influence the situation in the UK. As a result, UK pilots could end up flying more hours, even if that is not the intention at this stage. Even if they do not, it is anomalous for other European pilots to continue to fly for longer hours. It would be more reassuring to know that when a plane flies over my constituency, or your constituency in Newcastle, Mr. Deputy Speaker, all pilots are getting appropriate rest rather than just those working for UK airlines.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. My constituency is not in Newcastle; it is in Gateshead and is called Blaydon.

Mr. Lazarowicz

I am grateful for that correction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should have known that, and I hope that I have not caused offence to you or your constituents.

In the answer to my parliamentary question given earlier this week, the Minister told me that the Civil Aviation Authority believes that the current proposal, since it has been amended, is acceptable. I respect the expertise of the CAA, but the Minister will be aware that many are still concerned about the proposals—in particular, but not only, the pilots who fly the planes in which millions travel across the UK skies every day.

Will the Minister investigate why the CAA did not consult its own expert body, which is concerned about these issues? I am told that the flight time limitation group, a sub-group of the fixed wing advisory group, set up after the Bader report of 1972, was not consulted when the CAA gave its views on the proposal. I hope that, if nothing else, the Minister tells me why that did not happen, and ensures that the appropriate expert group, which involves pilots' organisations, will be consulted on the details of the revised proposals going through the European institutions.

Given that the consequences of an air crash can be so serious, we cannot afford to have anything less than the highest possible standards of air safety in the UK skies. I know that the Government are committed to aviation safety and concerned about the link between fatigue and transport accidents. Indeed, the Government have an excellent record on introducing measures designed to improve safety, not just in the air but for road, rail and shipping. Last year, I was privileged to serve on the Standing Committee that dealt with one of those measures. As we have such a good record on high safety standards, it is even more important that we maintain them.

Now that the proposal for European regulation has been sent back for more discussion, I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity that it gives him to consider the points that I have made today, listen to the points raised by the pilots' organisations and the many safety experts, and see whether we can make an improved proposal over the next few months. I know that he has been in constructive dialogue with pilots' organisations and other bodies, but I hope that he takes on board my concerns about the need to consult, in particular, the expert group of the CAA.

At a time of considerable competitive pressure on airlines for lower and lower fares, we must never forget that our top priority in air travel must be safety. Longer hours for pilots might well cut airline costs, but that must not be at the expense of the safety of airline passengers and crews.

4.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I know that Blaydon is not in Newcastle, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but that is by the bye. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) on securing this timely debate. As he pointed out, flight and duty time limitations—FTL, as they are known—are a very important safety requirement. I am grateful to him for his comments on the safety record not just of this Government but of successive British Governments. Safety is paramount throughout the transport world, not least in aviation. As he suggests, it has long been recognised that fatigue could be a contributory factor in aircraft accidents. The Civil Aviation Authority's current requirements have their origins in a 1973 review of the subject, chaired by Douglas Bader. Since then, they have been subject to continuous development in light of scientific evidence and operational experience.

The current UK legal requirements on flight time limits are contained in the air navigation order. That requires operators to establish an FTL scheme to ensure that no member of the crew of an aircraft will suffer from fatigue while he is flying to the extent that it endangers the safety of the aircraft. Such schemes must be approved by the CAA. In addition, the order sets absolute limits of 100 hours of flight duty in any 28 days, and 900 hours of flight duty in any 12 months.

The preparation and presentation by an operator of any FTL scheme is complex and time consuming. A scheme needs to strike a balance between the needs of the many members of the crew and the operational requirements of providing services to various parts of the world at various times of day. Schemes also need to cover a wide range of issues and eventualities to achieve the goal of maintaining an appropriate level of safety on all flights, as my hon. Friend suggested.

The CAA therefore gives guidelines on how to establish an FTL scheme in its publication "CAP 371: the Avoidance of Fatigue in Aircrews—Guide to Requirements". The limits quoted in CAP 371 are for guidance only, and the CAA can agree variations to the limits if an operator can show that an equivalent level of protection against fatigue can be achieved in another way.

Of course, as my hon. Friend intimated, the air navigation order and the CAA guidance apply to UK airlines only. Foreign airlines operating in the UK have to comply with any FTL requirements established by their national aviation authority. Such FTL requirements need only follow the provisions of annexe 6 to the Chicago convention, which does not set specific limits.

Within Europe, the need for harmonised operational requirements providing a high level of safety has long been recognised, and was highlighted by the creation of the single market in air services in 1991. There have since been a number of attempts to produced harmonised flight and duty time requirements, which we fully supported. However, in view of the different FTL requirements, operational patterns and workplace agreements across Europe, this has been a fraught process. It may be useful to outline efforts made to agree harmonised FTL requirements since 1991.

The European Joint Aviation Authorities, with considerable input from our own CAA, developed standards for the certification of airlines in its "Joint Aviation Requirement on Commercial Air Transportation (Aeroplanes)", known as JAR-OPS 1. A section of that document, known as sub-part Q, dealt with FTL and was not too dissimilar from current UK requirements. The CAA was satisfied that it achieved an acceptable level of safety. However, sub-part Q was not adopted by the JAA with the rest of JAR-OPS 1, as some JAA member states had differing concerns about various aspects of the requirement and its effect on their aviation industries.

After the failure of the JAA to agree on FTL, the European Commission had a go. It held a series of meetings with stakeholders and regulatory authorities, but was unfortunately unable to reach a consensus on a set of requirements with the interested parties. Consequently, when the Commission issued a proposal for the incorporation of the requirements of JAR-OPS 1 into EC law, it did not contain any detailed FTL requirements. When the European Parliament reviewed the proposed regulation adopting JAR-OPS 1, it decided that it was incomplete without any FTL—an understandable viewpoint.

The Parliament's rapporteur on the proposal, Brian Simpson, a UK MEP, put considerable effort into producing, in consultation with the airline and crew representatives, baseline flight time limitation requirement. It was subsequently adopted by the Parliament in September 2002 as an amendment to the proposed regulation. That formed the basis of the Commission's proposal for flight and duty time requirements.

The CAA reviewed the Commission's proposal on our behalf. Its FTL experts advised that, with a small number of amendments, the proposal could form an acceptable baseline requirement, supported by the additional requirements of individual member states. However, given w lat my hon. Friend has said, I will check that point and make sure that the FTL group of the CAA was indeed so advised.

During the consideration of the proposal by the Transport Councils aviation working group, we sought to have the proposal amended in line with the advice we had received from the CAA. During those negotiations, held just last week, as my hon. Friend said, we succeeded in having almost all the amendments we proposed incorporated in the text, which was considered by the Council last Friday.

At the Transport Council, it was agreed to defer a decision on the proposal, as some member states still had some outstanding areas of concern. Those related mainly to the differences between the proposal and their current requirements, invariably less than those of the UK, and the effect that they might have on their industry. There was no suggestion by any member state that the proposal was in any way unsafe. Indeed, during negotiations on the proposal, most member states said they believe that operational experience shows their existing FTL requirements are safe. That is the situation today. We await future developments with interest.

As my hon. Friend suggested, I have a good working relationship with British Airline Pilots Association, among others, and intend to speak to it in the time between last week's failure and any subsequent replay of the FTL directive at subsequent Councils. Thanks to the assurance of the CAA about safety considerations and the acceptance of most of the amendments that the CAA and ourselves put forward in the Council, we were satisfied with, and were one of the countries that supported the passing of, the directive last week.

With any flight limitation scheme, one has to consider the effect of the scheme as a whole and its ability to protect against unsafe levels of fatigue. I do not demur from anything that my hon. Friend suggested in that regard. Therefore, I do not believe that it is necessarily useful to compare individual limits for the EC proposals with the equivalents from CAP 371.

However, it is worth noting that the limits set by the proposal would have been legally binding, rather than just guidance—as CAP 371 is—and could be varied only through a defined process. Furthermore, a key provision of the requirement placed an absolute obligation on operators to ensure that crew have sufficient rest time and that duties are planned to ensure that crew members remain sufficiently free from fatigue to operate to a satisfactory level of efficiency and safety under all circumstances. I assure my hon. Friend that the CAA was confident that the final proposal taken as a whole would have allowed it to ensure an adequate level of safety for UK airlines, but as I said, I am more than happy to meet BALPA, and other interested parties, to allay any concerns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate in such a timely fashion. If all hon. Members managed to secure debates on issues two or three days after those issues had been dealt with in European Councils, we might have a higher degree of topicality in Westminster Hall and parliamentary debates. My hon. Friend will have more to say on the matter, given the time that we have before it comes before the Council again. I am sure that I will spend as much time on the matter between now and when it next comes up in Council.

In conclusion, I emphasise that the CAA has an excellent—I think exemplary and unparalleled—record on safety in civil aviation. It is entirely right and proper that we turn to the CAA for guidance on issues as important as safety. It says that what was on the table last Thursday and Friday was appropriate, as amended. I would need a lot of persuading that someone knew better than the CAA what should prevail. In the gap before the next time that what is on the table is presented to Council, I am more than happy to be engaged with and persuaded that we need to do more and go further in terms of the FTL. I again commend my hon. Friend for raising such an important matter in such a timely fashion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Four o'clock.