The European Aviation Safety Agency's launch this week makes many in the industry nervous. But they can influence it if they really want to

At the end of last week the European Union finally got a centralised aviation safety agency, EASA, just as the USA has one Federal Aviation Administration rather than 50 separate state bodies.

Nobody will notice for a while - it will not change the lives of any part of the industry overnight because the transition, via the Joint Aviation Authorities, has been evolutionary. EASA gained its parliamentary mandate last year and was given 12 months to become operational. Everyone affected by the laws that will now be enforced centrally has known for years that the changes were on their way. Most have been working according to the Joint Aviation Requirements (JAR) - on which EASA's regulations are based - for years, but today standardisation rather than nationally interpreted harmonisation is the name of the game.

The theoretical advantages are easy to understand. European aviation industries now all have to conform to the same standards, first in airworthiness, certification and maintenance and, within the next five years, the same operational standards. So that elusive goal - the level playing field - is being delivered. EU states with unenforced or undemanding regulations now have to raise their standards to the common level or be penalised. The results should be improved quality and better safety, which is what the consumer should see.

So why is EASA not being hailed as a major achievement? It has been a difficult task creating the new body. It entailed winning political consensus for such an agency among member states, then designating its delicate relationship as an apolitical bridge between European Commission law-drafters/law-wielders and those with the technical expertise in the industry that can make - and keep - its laws relevant. But Europeans' natural scepticism - rightly - will not free them to praise a system until it has proved itself in operation, and EASA is an unknown quantity as yet. Perhaps the greatest fear is that it will it lack transparency and be more bureaucratic and unaccountable in practice than the systems it replaces. The transparency fear is almost certainly over-hyped, because it can hardly be said that the multiple-agency system was either simple or transparent. But the national aviation authorities - which will continue to play their role as oversight agencies - were known quantities and they had evolved with their local industries.

There is also the fear that the voices of the small or niche players in the industry will not be heard in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands, where EASA has its temporary headquarters. An example of why this concern exists is the recent experience of the helicopter industry working with the JAA to draw up JAR OPS 3, the operational standards for rotary wing operations. This is now in its third major amendment even though it is the most recent set of JAR OPS to become effective. How can an agency be so far out of kilter with the industry it regulates? The answer is different according to where in the helicopter industry one poses the question. One allegation is that the JAA just took its JAR OPS for fixed wing operations and inserted "helicopter" wherever the word "aircraft" appeared, which is probably a little harsh. There is certainly a belief that the offshore helicopter industry had a high level of influence on the early versions of JAR OPS 3, leaving other categories of helicopter operator unheard. But if that is so, why did it happen and how? A senior official in Europe's helicopter associations points out that offshore operators are the largest, and can spare people to represent them, whereas small air taxi operators, for example, cannot spare the people or the time to work with the JAA to develop their new regulations. Perhaps that is nearer the truth.

Meanwhile, Eurocontrol, an agency that will advise the EASA on air traffic management (ATM) regulations, recently saw its ambition to enforce reduced vertical separation minima carried out despite pleas from smaller airlines and the business jet community that it cost too much to equip older aircraft. It is now planning to do the same for controller/pilot datalink communications using VHF Datalink mode 2 on the grounds that Europe's ATM system will not be able to match capacity to demand unless it is mandated soon.

The sectors of the industry that do not have loud voices should rightly be watchful. But basically, EASA is the only sensible way to proceed, and it embodies a traditional rulemaking consultation process. So those that have, in the past, not been good at taking part in rulemaking are going to have to band together to make sure they are heard.

Source: Flight International