One of the toughest jobs connected with aviation safety is trying to convince operators that being safe today has little bearing on being safe tomorrow if continuous attention is not paid. This task gets even more difficult during periods of economic hardship.
This caveat is the same for regulators as it is for operators, but the consequences of a regulator’s slipping focus are less obvious, reflected mostly in a secondary way when the state of an operator’s compliance becomes noticeably lacking, which means that not only has the regulator failed to maintain standards, but the operator as well, an evil brew of circumstances.
So, when the European Union’s (EU’s) Safety Assessment of Foreign Aircraft (SAFA), that famous ramp inspection program, started to see German air carriers showing an increasing number of findings per inspection, the EU Air Safety Committee started a formal consultation with the German regulator, Luftfahrtbundesamt (LBA), as was reported in the April 20, 2011, edition of the Official Journal of the European Union.
An analysis of the problems SAFA found “revealed particular weaknesses in the oversight of these carriers.” The inquiry also “pointed at insufficient numbers of qualified personnel within the LBA, thus impacting upon Germany’s ability to ensure continuous oversight and limiting the LBA’s ability to increase the level of oversight where necessary.”
As alarming as this condition may be, this is even more troubling: “In terms of the lack of qualified staff, Germany informed the Air Safety Committee that no improvements would occur in 2011. However, an assessment of the LBA’s personnel resources was underway and should conclude in spring 2011, therefore an improvement in the personnel situation is to be anticipated from 2012 onwards.”
The EU Commission and the Air Safety Committee recognized that the LBA had taken steps to correct problems found during SAFA inspections, but concluded that if LBA “actions are ineffective in improving the performance of air carriers certified in Germany, action would be necessary to ensure that identified safety risks have been adequately controlled.” It should also be noted that the Air Safety Committee issued this same warning to the Spanish regulator, also based on SAFA findings.
This is a startling situation, with warnings more typical of what is aimed at struggling developing nations than those in the heart of one of the most prosperous and aviation-savvy regions in the world.
But perhaps it shouldn’t come as so much of a surprise, given the semi-thought-through way Europe is transitioning from each nation having a regulator to the creation of the overarching European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is thinly staffed and dependent on the personnel at the national authorities.
The existence of the EASA must lessen the EU states’ sense of obligation to field a sufficient, competent regulatory staff. Martin Chalk, president of the European Cockpit Association, reported at the Foundation’s European Aviation Safety Seminar earlier this year that the staff of the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority’s safety regulation group decreased from 831 people in 2002 to 579 in 2007 as airline traffic seat-kilometers increased 28 percent. “Similar changes can be found across the European continent. However, EASA’s latest figures suggest that they have a total staff of only 460, of which 64 percent are in the finance, certification or executive directories,” Chalk said.
Somehow, this situation must be corrected, probably by a combination of hiring and redefinition or clarification of responsibilities between EASA and the EU member states.