A special kind of scrutiny was applied to the European Aviation Safety Agency last week.
On 27 September the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) imported five of the top executives from EASA, seated them behind a long desk facing a packed hall of industry people, allowed them a few words each to update the audience on current issues they face, and then opened the session for about two hours of questions.
This doesn’t normally happen to the senior executives in European agencies. So why EASA? And why did the agency’s big five – executive director Patrick Goudou, communications head Daniel Holtgen, quality and standardisation director Francesco Banal, certification director Norbert Lohl and deputy head of flight standards Eric Sivel – agree to undergo this public grilling?Everybody seems to agree that EASA is necessary, but few have a good word to say about how it’s working. It is entrusted with creating a “level playing field” in Europe’s aviation safety environment. That clichéd concept – “a level playing field” is unquestioningly accepted as being desirable. EASA is also required to operate a policy of “transparency” in its processes and decisionmaking. Transparency is another modern cliché the desirability of which is never questioned. It was certainly in evidence at the RAeS that day.
But what’s the fuss really about?
I can’t help feeling that the same people who claim they embrace those two hallowed concepts – the level playing field and transparency – don’t actually like them except when they apply to other people. What they really mean is that everybody else’s playing field should be levelled with their own, and transparency means everybody else should be compelled to reveal everything about their processes and reasoning, but they themselves can be selective about what they choose to make “transparent”.
One of the many assumptions embraced in setting up EASA – and other European agencies – is that safety must be standardised. Must it? Why? Airline passengers are not stupid: they have always known that if you choose to fly with an airline based in a country where road safety is dire, where the police don’t care and in which government is either totally hands-off or actually corrupt they should be suspicious about the carrier’s standards. If they choose to fly with it, the decision is usually made on a price basis. Don’t passengers have that right? Shouldn’t the principle of “caveat emptor” apply in aviation as it does elsewhere?
Standardisation – in itself – is a sacred cow. And you can standardise down as well as up.
Standardisation is essential in some operational areas, like the rules of the air. In almost all others it is optional. Its benefits are that it is appealingly neat and tidy; that once adopted it makes administration easier; and that it enables the passenger to choose an airline with his/her brain in neutral.
Let’s examine the principle of certification standards. Nowadays no manufacturer of a new aircraft type would sell more than a couple of the model if it proved itself unsafe for design reasons. The company would be committing corporate suicide in producing it. So is certification redundant? Not entirely, but heavy-handed certification certainly is.
So back to EASA. Is it heavy handed? Well, in EASA we are getting a dose of what we thought we wanted. Or, as I said earlier, what each of us wanted for all the other EU countries who should have modelled their standards on ours. But EASA is sternly informing all of us that things are going to change for everybody. The only difference is that some countries will have to do more changing than others.
Meanwhile, don’t forget that we are still working with the pre-production model of EASA, if not the prototype. EASA is being modified as it goes along – which is what should happen. If it ends up as a costly, ineffective juggernaut it will be the fault of the industry and of individual national governments. Together they can shape it, provided they know what they want it to do and can agree on how it should be done.
That’s why the RAeS session was such a good idea – and it’s the second time the Society has done this. This is good for EASA and good for the industry. It is communication in its purest form.
What emerged was that, although EASA has a system that scrupulously meets the legal specifications for transparency, its system of communications does not seem to be working too well. Although anyone with a lot of time on their hands can find out what’s going on at EASA, it’s quite difficult when you are looking for details of rules or proposals that are still being processed. Once the rules are finalised they are easy to find, but it’s too late for useful communication.
EASA needs to be more pro-active with its communication. Graphic flow-charts on its website for every measure that EASA is processing would be a good idea. You could see at a glance what measures are being contemplated, what is being proposed, and what stage of consultation or rulemaking each has reached.
At the RAeS meeting the general aviation community was by far the most vocal. They fear their freedoms will be eroded even further than the JAA had previously eroded some of them. But they found, to their surprise, that EASA is preparing to roll back some of the JAA measures on private pilots’ licences. The process was in the pipeline, but nobody except EASA seemed to be aware of that. There were many examples of this type.
The many lines of questioning revealed a lot about how human beings perceive agencies, especially remote transnational ones. The industry wants transparency, and transparency’s most critical component is consultation on proposed rulemaking. Yet consultation takes time, and it often exposes the need for changes which themselves then need to be exposed to more consultation. An agency that takes a long time to do things, and which is punctilious about agreed procedures is perceived as bureaucratic. But if it does not follow procedure it will be castigated. It’s the original lose-lose situation.
Another perception revealed by lines of questioning is a belief that EASA is a regulator like the national aviation authorities (NAA) are. It isn’t. National aviation authorities are given a legal mandate by their governments to regulate in their own countries. The EASA is an expert body that prepares aviation regulations that can be made into European law without unintended consequences, but it has no power to make the laws itself. That is the task of the European lawmaking process involving the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission. Once the regulations become law, it is the EASA’s job, working with the NAAs, to oversee their practice.
It’s a complicated process. What people have to make up their minds about is this: do we value a level safety playing field and transparency in rulemaking sufficiently to make this complicated process worth the time, effort and expense?
If we do, unless we take a part in shaping the process we will get what we deserve.