Safety as political football – totally off-side

Safety is always an issue for air transport.  As it should be.  Airlines, ANSPs, regulators all have departments devoted to ensuring safe operations.  Consequently, few subjects in aviation have had more study, more attention and more proposals put forward.  But that is not to say that we have all the answers.

And, sadly, for the work that is being done, safety in air transport seems destined always to being a political football.  Even before the Yemenia disaster, the on-going negotiations between the US and the EU on the second phase of the Open Skies bilateral agreement had been mired in allegation and counter allegation surrounding safety inspections.

Revelations subsequent to the Yemenia accident concerning the state of the particular aircraft, an A310, and whether it was permitted to fly into Europe, have added to the confusion.  What the Yemenia disaster does do is to throw into stark relief complex international questions concerning what is an appropriate means to ensure a safe global aviation system.

The most recent proposal is that of European Commissioner Tajani – who held a press conference with no lesser light than the President of the Council of ICAO Roberto Gonzalez to put forward his big idea.  Normally, after agreeing to speak, Commissioner Tajani sends someone to apologise for his non-attendance, but this time he showed up.  One cannot help wondering if he might have preferred not being there – it did not go as he had planned.

The European Commission has had a black-list of carriers not authorised to fly into Europe for three years now.  Recently the list has been extended to include, in some cases, all carriers from certain countries.   But the EC list is based on information from the various Member States, and that is not always consistent.

Hence the situation we saw in the Yemenia case.  Each European country continues to conduct inspections of aircraft and carriers flying into their airports.  In a number of cases, they also discuss matters with their counterparts in the home jurisdiction of the carrier involved.  You may recall that the French authorities had expressed some concerns about Yemenia until an inspection by the Yemen CAA was conducted, and the UK authorities had refused permission for the particular aircraft involved to enter UK airspace.

The underlying issue is not always about a particular carrier but the system of inspection and oversight the civil aviation authority of that country has in place.  The US Department of Transport in fact conducts audits of other country CAAs (not its carriers).  They are then graded in one of three categories.

Not that this process is entirely without politics either of course.  Earlier this year the DoT audited Australia and found a number of shortfalls.  Rather than adjust Australia’s ranking – it is Cat I – a series of remedial actions were agreed.  The embarrassment to Australia of being downgraded would have been significant, and there would have been a cost to Qantas too.  One may wonder if Yemen would have been afforded that courtesy.

ICAO too has in recent years, partially spurred on by the US actions, it has to be said, has also conducted audits – and, and this is a big and – it publishes the results of those audits on its website, including any audit shortfalls, as well as remedial actions undertaken.  You might be able to imagine the work required to get the governments of the world to agree to a self-naming and shaming regime.

It should also be noted that IATA has made it a condition of membership to IATA that airlines pass an audit, called the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA).  This is a carrier level audit – it is not an audit of the CAA involved.  Yemenia had passed that audit, and remains a member of IATA.  As had Air France.

So what role the EU black list?  Well, Commissioner Tajani has an idea.

He is offering the European model to the world: black ban carriers, and sometimes countries, from flying into participating countries.  Which if it is actually global, would of course be all countries.  So it would seem that DG TREN is saying that we need some sort of international civil aviation organisation to look at these important issues.  We could call it the International Civil Aviation Organisation, or maybe ICAO for short.  Tra-la!  Oh.

‘The EU view is to have a broader strategy, to bring together ICAO and IATA’ into some sort of international blacklist Tajani proposed.  ‘I am absolutely convinced we want to have an international strategy.’  Sadly, Commissioner Tajani was not able to explain what sort of some sort of international blacklist he had in mind.

Funnily enough, ICAO’s President of the Council Gonzalez was unimpressed.  There are a number of questions about such a proposal, not least of which being the position for ICAO’s States – they would move to a position of blacklisting themselves.  He made clear his disagreement with the proposal and promptly left – leaving Commissioner Tajani to clear up any misunderstandings.  Like, for example, why he would organise a press conference with someone that disagreed so fundamentally with his point of view.

Commissioner Tajani should be applauded for not stage managing every element of the press conference.  It shows a remarkable commitment to discussing the issues.  But one might have assumed that there was some common understanding before facing the press.

Perhaps, if nothing else, what this shows is that there remains a huge need for what Tony Blair liked to call ‘joined up thinking’ on this issue.

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