The European Aviation Safety Agency has got down to business. But how well does the industry understand the new body's responsibilities and powers?

For decades, the business of ensuring the safety of civil aircraft in Europe has been carried out by a patchwork of often overlapping and conflicting enforcement regimes and regulatory bodies. The creation of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) last year was intended to clear some of the confusion, with the new organisation taking over many of the responsibilities of the existing national aviation authorities (NAA) and the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA).

But - as with many initiatives that involve international co-operation and the merging of sovereignties - the change for the better might take longer than many hope, particularly long-suffering US manufacturers for whom pan-European certification through the JAA can take thrice as long as the US Federal Aviation Authority. In theory, EASA should be a powerful body; in reality, it is little more than a skeleton organisation, with few staff, an unclear remit and facing an uphill struggle to promote itself to the global industry.

EASA was officially born on 28 September last year, meeting a deadline set in July 2002 by the European Union to create an air safety agency with binding powers. The desire to have an regime with teeth dates back to 1951, when France proposed the Bonnefous plan to create a European high authority for transport. A loose grouping of 19 western European states under the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) followed in 1955, with an aim of promoting the co-ordination of air transport in Europe.

The emergence of the multinational Airbus project was the impetus for the creation of the then Joint Airworthiness Authorities in 1970, an associate body of ECAC with the objectives of producing common certification codes for large aircraft and engines. The original JAA evolved into the Joint Aviation Authorities and since 1987 its role has been extended to cover flight operations, maintenance, licensing and certification for all classes of aircraft, with member states evaluating proposals before a joint type approval is issued.

JAA certification standards had been increasingly harmonised with those of the US Federal Aviation Administration. Many within the industry credit the body with the smooth passage into service of many new aircraft types. However, the tasks of approval, certification and safety monitoring still use the staff of the NAAs of the JAA's 26 full members and 11 candidate members.

Despite rules on harmonising technical standards in force in all EU countries since 1992, interpretation of JAA certification rules differ greatly between EU states, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK among those imposing additional national requirements before certification. The result is a costly, lengthy procedure.

Barry Valentine, senior vice-president for international affairs at the US General Aviation Manufacturers' Association (GAMA) estimates that certification of a US aircraft through the FAA takes around one-third as long as through the JAA. As a result, some GAMA members still prefer to certificate aircraft on a country-by-country basis, especially for aircraft sold in relatively small numbers. "Raytheon went to individual NAAs for approval for the Beechcraft Premier I business jet [for which it had a specific customer in Germany], but on balance most manufacturers decide to pursue JAA approval for breadth," says Valentine.

The perception among aerospace companies of an uneven playing field and uncertainty over the cost and time for certification was the catalyst for giving a single European airworthiness body binding legal powers. "It's always been a thorn in the side of US manufacturers that approval is so much easier in the USA; but it's also a problem for European manufacturers as the JAA never really fulfilled its promise," he says.

EU members agreed in July 2002 to create EASA as an agency of the European Commission, making its rules law in all 15 EU countries. EASA rules will also replace those of the NAAs in the 10 EU accession countries, to join the union from May. And thanks to an agreement with the EU's forerunner, the European Free Trade Area, the rules also apply to Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and, theoretically, Liechtenstein. "Twenty-five EU countries plus three is a sizeable area to have commonality," says Valentine.

Mission focus

EASA's "primary mission focus" is that of "issuing certificates for aeronautical products", and the agency issued its first type certificate, EASA.E.001, for the Turbomeca Arriel 2 family of turboshaft helicopter engines in December last year.

The agency can claim some immediate success in streamlining the European certification process. Existing European joint aviation requirements (JAR) have already been transported into the new EASA certification standards, with additional national requirements phased out.

Patrick Goudou, EASA executive director, says an issue over maximum seat capacity on the Boeing 737-700 is an example of harmonisation already performed. Similarly, national airworthiness directives (AD), used by some countries such as the UK as de facto additional equipment rules, are defunct. "The UK reviewed its more than 200 ADs on foreign manufacturers and reduced it to around 10 it considered essential prior to the creation of EASA," says Goudou.

Even each member state's final list of "essential ADs" is to be reviewed, with NAAs having to prove meteorological conditions or other mitigating circumstances to keep additional national requirements. This is the kind of step GAMA wants to see from the new agency, says Valentine. "The rule-making process must be data-driven and there needs to be some evidence that an event could happen, not might," he says.

EASA will also take over responsibility for approvals of design and maintenance organisations, and eventually take over functions such as personnel licensing, but the timeframe for its inheritance of these functions is hazy. Many in the industry did not expect the EC to meet the target of creating the agency within the 14-month timeframe, and subsequently much of the legislation is yet to be finalised. Despite this, the 28 September deadline was achieved with little resistance among EU governments, demonstrating the political support for the new agency.

Goudou is drawing up its roadmap for the next four years, and he admits the agency is a long way from being the "one-stop shop" it wants to be. This is largely due to a lack of staff; the Brussels offices it temporarily inhabits before its move to Cologne are still empty. "I arrived on 1 September and there were 11 consultants, without any technicians, so my main priority is to recruit aeronautical specialists to build the agency's expertise," says Goudou.

Initially, the EC foresaw a fully staffed agency by 28 September, and had expected to dissolve the existing bilateral air safety agreements (BASA) with third countries from day one and replace them with BASAs representing the entire EU. Before the creation of EASA, the FAA had BASAs with most of the current EU members, but Doug Lavin, FAA assistant administrator for international aviation, says: "Clearly, with only around 10 staff members, it was unrealistic that EASA could have taken over all the competence of the JAA and NAAs in one move, so there is no way we could have signed such a bilateral."

Through an exchange of diplomatic notes in September last year, the USA resolved to continue to recognise the NAAs until the FAA completes due diligence on EASA, likely within the agency's 42-month deadline for full competence. "We have a policy of 'trust then verify', but at the moment it's very much 'business as usual'," says Lavin.

Although EASA asks that applications for certification be sent to its offices (with a caveat that a copy may be sent to the lead authority), the agency then farms the work back to the JAA, which in turn distributes work out to relevant NAA staff. "At the moment the JAA acts as a subcontractor, with the expertise, but not the power," says Goudou. As the agency hires technical staff, it will assume control over co-ordinating tasks now handled by the JAA. EASA's new directors will now hire their own technical staff, and the agency aims to have 95 staff in place by the end of this year; most will be drawn from 60 engineers now working with the JAA, as well as applicants from national airworthiness bodies.

Offering "opinions"

The basic regulation under which the agency was established to represent EU member states defines the agency's role as offering its technical assistance in the form of "opinions", which go on to become EC regulation. Yet Goudou admits that a delay of almost six months in the appointment of an executive director created a challenge for him in his first weeks to ensure all the relevant documents were written in time for the agency's formal launch in September.

"It's true that if an executive director had been appointed three months before I was, then the race against time to get all of the opinions published would have been more comfortable," he says. For example, EASA's recommendations on continuing airworthiness of aircraft and aeronautical products was signed by Goudou on his first day and entered into practice only on 20 November last year. Some of the legislation was drafted in haste, he says. For example, there is no provision for Goudou to delegate power included in the basic regulation, thus requiring his personal sign-off for every supplementary type certificate, maintenance certificate and flight manual update issued in the EU. Even by the end of December, Goudou had already signed around 2,000 certification documents.

Delegating certification duties to the new directors should free Goudou's time; there are several hurdles to overcome in the next few months. He will next have to draw up opinions on flightcrew licensing and air operations, responsibility for which the agency is set to assume in due course. The timetable for the handover of such functions from national authorities is ill-defined, he says, but a precise work programme is set to be published early this year, to increase the agency's credibility and transparency.

The future for the JAA remains a politically sensitive subject, especially for non-EU members. Goudou expects the joint body to remain as an intermediary between those countries bound by EASA regulations and those adopting them through national parliaments. "Even without airworthiness responsibilities, the JAA could continue to play a useful role as a forum between the EU states that are legally bound by EASA-drafted EC regulations and other countries in [the now 41-state] ECAC," he says.

Expertise concerns

A further issue he has to address is the concerns from outside the EU about the technical expertise of some countries' airworthiness authorities. In theory, any aircraft, maintenance facility or design organisation passed by one EU member state must be accepted by all others. Furthermore, those third countries with BASAs with the EU as a single bloc would also have to be convinced that all NAAs met the same standard. The FAA, for one, is not convinced; some existing and accession states do not yet pass its own International Aviation Safety Assessment programme standards.

"Clearly some EU countries, including the new ones, have varying levels of safety oversight," says Lavin. The EC wants to build a strong safety body and many "riskier" states will have no certification tasks until they meet international standards, says Goudou. "We have to help certain current and future EU members bring their certification standards up, but it will not be an issue immediately as there are no aircraft manufacturers in the weaker states and they have not been assigned foreign aircraft types," he says. For European aircraft, the NAA of the state of origin takes the lead on certification, enlisting officials from other NAAs for consultation, although existing type certificates issued by all EU states are "grandfathered", or transferred, to EASA. For foreign aircraft, EASA has lists of national authorities or JAA teams to carry out EASA work on its behalf when certificating foreign aircraft and parts (see table).

An even thornier issue Goudou faces is how to charge manufacturers for certification. Once again, US manufacturers are particularly sore about the relative high cost in Europe compared with FAA charges. GAMA members are even harder hit than the large airframers, says Valentine, due to the lower purchase prices. Goudou promises to streamline the system, and even implement cost-cutting drives, but first his team has to decide upon the best method.

"There are many different charging mechanisms across Europe from the cost-neutral to the quasi-governmental paid for by taxes," he says. "We have to define a system. Whatever we choose will have to be transparent, so manufacturers know exactly what they are paying for," he adds.

Once these issues are addressed, the real work of the transition of all the JAA's and NAAs' responsibilities will begin. The agency may feel some satisfaction in passing its first few certificates, that despite negative predictions, the agency's milestones have been met, albeit narrowly. Now, some may say, the real work begins.

Source: Flight International