Lazy Lists

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Banning airlines might take the heat off politicians, but it is a weak response to a gigantic challenge and is unlikely to achieve much

 

Politics and safety are rarely comfortable bedfellows, and the imminent creation of so-called airline blacklists in Europe is about to demonstrate the point.

This week France is due to announce a list of airlines banned from its airspace, to be followed by a “blue list” list of recommended airlines. Later this year the European Commission plans to announce its own proposals for blacklisting – nearly a decade after the issue was first raised.

Quite what this is all supposed to achieve is not yet clear, and history suggests blacklists are a lazy response to a gigantic challenge.

Politically it will take some of the heat off European transport ministers, who feel the need to be seen to do something in the wake of the extraordinary cluster of accidents over the last four weeks.

Consider the history: the push for blacklists began following the 1996 loss of a Boeing 757 operated by Birgenair of Turkey in which around 180 German tourists died.

Despite strong, but short-lived, German political pressure in Brussels, the EC has never moved ahead with the blacklisting measures then proposed and initially agreed.

In January 2004 a large number of French tourists died when a Boeing 737 of Egyptian carrier Flash Airlines was lost and questions were raised about the airline’s record. It emerged that Switzerland had – non-publicly – already banned Flash, and French politicians were assailed with demands for a blacklist. The EC again made noises about a similar move, but nothing happened.

At the same time, in response to a parliamentary question, the UK government publicly named 11 airlines it had banned or restricted. The list was essentially useless to the public, proving to be a mish-mash of flag carriers from war-torn African states, freight carriers, and two airlines restricted for non-safety reasons. Worse still, one Egyptian airline on the list was not in fact banned but saw its business hit – notably in France. The exercise has not been repeated.

The issue resurfaced this year when a Dutch safety crackdown resulted in the Netherlands banning Onur Air of Turkey. Three other European countries followed suit, but the rest declined, sparking fresh agonising.

All went quiet, and then France suffered a new tragedy when 150 of its citizens flying to Martinique were lost in the accident to a West Caribbean Airways Boeing MD-82 in August. The outcry was as predictable as it was vociferous and so a French blacklist is now to be published.

It will be fascinating to see which carriers are on the list. Will they include airlines from nations with intimate political links to France, or with important volumes of trade? One wonders whether France, or indeed any country, will have the courage to confront the diplomatic consequences of such a move – particularly if Air France is then banned by the other nation in retaliation.

Certainly West Caribbean would not have been on the list before its accident – and, with the investigation barely begun, it may still not be – and it is hard to see how Flash Airlines could have been.

In both cases there seems to be no evidence that the French authorities could have had much of a view one way or the other about those carriers before the accidents.

The same problem confronts any other European nations contemplating public blacklists, and indeed the EC. Just how are they supposed to know about the level of safety in the numerous small airlines that routinely visit their airports? Ramp inspections of individual aircraft are an entirely inadequate tool for making any serious assessment.

There are better alternatives. The US International Aviation Safety Assessment programme, aimed at assessing and assisting other nations rather than airlines, has been hugely beneficial. The International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audit of operators is slowly having an influence.

The non-specialist public, however, understandably wants unsafe airlines to be banned so that it does not have to make its own mind up about the safety of carriers.

That is not achievable except in the simplistic sense of regulatory action against the most egregious offenders.

What the EC can do, if it has the will, is join the USA in the decades-old, never-ending war to generate safe practice in the very heart of the air transport community worldwide.