Helsinki Vantaa-based Hendell Aviation
has just been licensed by the Finnish Civil Aviation Authority for single-engine commercial flights under instrument meteorological conditions (SE-IMC) using its turboprop Pilatus PC-12s.
SE-IMC commercial passenger flight is recognised by the International Civil Aviation Organisation but not by all European Union states. The problem for those - usually countries with fickle weather - who don't feel able to accept the ICAO standard, is what happens in IMC if the single engine fails. If it's cargo or private flight, the argument goes, people should be allowed to take that risk, but for commercial flight the passengers should not be given the option.
Meanwhile the same passengers would be allowed to charter an ancient, unpressurised, piston-engined Piper Navajo whose performance condemns it to the icing layer below 10,000ft, and this is permitted on the grounds that it has two engines, even if its performance on one is - to put it politely - marginal, and the chances of a failure are more than twice that of a modern turboprop.
It's easy to appreciate the dilemma the authorities have, but the arguments should be guided more now by incident statistics and the increasing performance and capabilities of modern onboard avionics and flight management systems in aeroplanes like the latest PC-12s.
Meanwhile the authorities should start asking questions about the advisability of allowing indefinite grandfather rights for ancient piston twins that ply legally for passenger charter. They will never leave the marketplace to more modern equipment if they are provided with an artificial advantage by outdated rules.
Meanwhile Hendell's chief executive officer Matti Auterinen says his company's licence enables him to fly his PC-12s in most parts of Russia, Belarus, and Europe as a one- or two-pilot operation depending on whether the task is pure cargo, or passenger/air ambulance.
The European Aviation Safety Agency is currently framing rules on SE-IMC operations and these, Auterinen admits, these may eventually affect his carrier. The effect could be positive or negative depending on the outcome.
Auterinen said he tends to the optimistic, reasoning that arguing a case for departing from ICAO Annex 6, Part 1 Para 5.4, which has defined successful SE-IMC operations in North America and much of the rest of the world, is legally difficult to justify, especially while far less reliable operations by vintage twin-piston-engined aircraft are permitted under grandfather rights.
Asked whether he believes the certification his company has just won is significant in Europe, Auterinen says categorically yes.
He sees future argument about operational limitations turning as much on the professional skills of an SE-IMC-trained two-pilot crew as the capabilities of the airframe/engine combination, explaining: "If it's done well with a properly trained two-pilot crew drilled in well-tried procedures for single-engine aircraft, we could be looking at a new era."
With the pressurised PC-12 able to fly at flight levels close to 30,000ft, he pointed out, the glide capabilities give a crew a huge choice of landing options, and using the the UK Royal Air Force high-key/low-key glide approach technique combined with a battery system that permits the autopilot to remain engaged, SE-IMC looks a different prospect than it did some years ago.
If Auterinen is right, chartering a civilised aircraft for less than the price of a small twinjet will become an option.