Clear way forward

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The decision by two independent agencies to base aviation safety management on performance could help nations with poor records

It is pure coincidence, according to International Civil Aviation Organisation president Assad Kotaite, that the European Union has published its much-heralded “blacklist” of banned airlines in the same week that a conference of ICAO contracting states in Montreal agreed on a nation-by-nation safety audit disclosure arrangement.
The two events may have been different in their scope and the manner in which agreement was reached, but their aims are the same: to provide the public with the means to make informed choices about airline travel. By doing that, they are performing an equally important function: they are putting pressure on states that are incompetent or uncaring in their duty to provide safety oversight for aircraft and airlines on their national register.
In Europe the disquiet that has finally led to publication of an official blacklist of banned airlines began with the crash, in February 1996, of a Boeing 757 off the Dominican Republic coast. The operator was a Dominican carrier Alas Nacionales; the aircraft was leased from Turkish operator Birgenair; and the passengers were German tourists, who had booked their holidays with a local tour operator. All 189 people on board died when the crew lost control following a malfunction of an airspeed indicator. German politicians, reacting to the public’s fury about the opaqueness of the travel product’s many components, and the impossibility for an ordinary customer of checking all its multinational parts, decided something must be done. But what? It took 10 years and another crash before the blacklist solution evolved into policy.
The other accident was in January 2004 when a Flash Airlines Boeing 737-300 crashed just after take-off from Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. This time the tourists were French, and the relatives’ grief turned to anger when they discovered Flash was banned for safety reasons by Switzerland, but not by the French authorities, who knew about that prohibition.
In a continent where aviation safety standards had supposedly been harmonised under the Joint Aviation Authorities, the individual national aviation authorities (NAA) were operating to different standards, or at least to individual interpretations of the same ones. Now the European Commission has taken away that option by defining reasons for an airline to be banned from operating to Europe. So if one EU state bans an airline, it is barred from all of them.
The European blacklist, as now published, meshes neatly with ICAO’s just-agreed policy, even though the two were not co-ordinated. The fact is, their time had come. In the case of five African countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Swaziland – the European blacklist refers to “all air carriers certified by the authorities with responsibility for regulatory oversight of [name of state]”. It then lists the names of the known carriers supposedly under the safety oversight of each country’s NAA, clearly implying the authority cannot be trusted even to know the names of airlines operating from its territory, let alone for policing their safety standards.
Meanwhile, directors-general of civil aviation from 153 of ICAO’s 189 signatory states met in Montreal last week to agree on a “global strategy for aviation safety in the 21st century”. Many African nations were represented. So was the European Commission. The strategy uses the ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) to round up the many straggler nations that are still having frequent airline accidents when the rest of the world has got its safety act together.
The conference outcome was orchestrated by the chairmanship of its president Assad Kotaite. He persuaded many developing nations to decide in favour of publishing the results of all NAA audits under the USOAP.
These countries should not be left alone to sort out the mess in which lack of investment and resources – and in some cases the corrosive effect of corruption – has left their NAAs. Now that they have agreed to transparency, resources and investment can be provided, with less risk that the assistance provided will disappear down a black hole. The most promising ICAO plan for many of the smaller nations is that safety oversight can be provided regionally, taking the burden of provision off some of the world’s poorest nations. In return for this transparency, the mature nations must provide aid and expertise. After all, their own airlines fly to these countries.