No space for compromises in aviation safety

No space for compromises in aviation safety

The UK’s airspace is full and our airports are at capacity. But the solution does not lie in more free-market models and cut-price competition. Prospect’s manifesto sets out what a post-Brexit aviation industry should look like

Civil aviation is a vital part of the economy. In 2016, it contributed more than £52bn to GDP and supported almost a million jobs. Our airports process £140bn of tradeable goods and more than 250 million passengers via more than two million aircraft movements every year.

Aviation will become even more important if we are to maintain and strengthen our global connections and relationships after Brexit.

But our airspace is full and our airports at capacity. Free-market models and cut-price competition has led to fragmentation and instability.

As this feeds into deteriorating service quality and delay and disruption, the risk is that the search for cheap, short-term solutions will compromise safety and one day be fatal.

The government has failed to describe what a post-Brexit aviation industry will look like. So Prospect has drawn up a manifesto setting out the principles and priorities that should be the starting point.

A system under pressure

Air traffic levels are growing. But signs of strain are showing in an industry that has not planned for, or invested in, the skills and infrastructure it needs.

Symptoms of deteriorating resilience include:

  • increasingly congested airspace and infrastructure
  • concerns over cuts to the capacity of safety regulators
  • a looming shortage of qualified aircraft engineers
  • reports of fatigue among pilots and maintenance workers
  • delays and disruption caused by staff shortages, from pilots to air traffic controllers.

This is affecting the passenger experience and wider economy. It will make it harder to meet our climate change obligations. And it could threaten our safety.

Prospect believes these problems have clear causes:

  • prevailing business models, pioneered by low-cost carriers and now widespread among budget airlines, that prioritise short-term cost cutting, outsourcing and dubious employment practices over long-term investment, workforce planning and sound employee relations
  • regulatory approaches, in the UK and Europe, that combine a light-touch attitude to safety with the imposition of liberalisation and free-market models
  • a political failure to match air travel demand with the necessary infrastructure – including in regions outside London and the South east.

This is not safe or sustainable.

What needs to happen

Prospect wants to see a successful aviation sector built on the highest possible safety standards, with a skilled and committed workforce and the best infrastructure.

That’s the best way forward for the passengers and businesses that rely on the industry, as well as the people who work in it.

Trade unions have a critical role to play in upholding safety standards, holding powerful interests to account and championing the commitment and expertise of aviation workers.

Reassert the primacy of safety

Safety is fundamental to aviation. We must ensure it is never compromised by cutting costs or meeting punctuality targets. That means:

  • breaking up the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and setting up a new UK Aviation Safety Agency so that responsibility for safety regulation is independent from the market regulator
  • reversing cuts to the staffing and expertise of the CAA’s Safety and Airspace Regulation Group and strengthening its capacity to inspect everything from staff training to maintenance operations
  • preventing an international race to the bottom by ending airlines’ use of “flags of convenience” to shop around for the weakest safety and employment standards
  • maintaining and strengthening the ‘Just Culture’ approach so workers are not inhibited from raising safety concerns.

Invest in resilience

Punctuality, reliability, service quality and environmental sustainability can be improved only through long-term investment in the staff, skills, technology and infrastructure we need. That means:

  • prioritising operational and service resilience instead of the short-term cost-cutting and outsourcing that has led to recent breakdowns
  • addressing skills and capacity gaps in areas like aircraft engineering, with proper funding for training without punitive and damaging “bonding” arrangements
  • focusing on ensuring air traffic control services have the staff and technology they need, instead of imposing market models that risk destabilising services
  • ending the planning blight that holds back infrastructure development, with a more integrated and region-friendly approach.

The challenge of Brexit

Aviation in the UK has been shaped for decades by European regulation.

Airlines are restructuring operations because the rules on flying and landing rights may change if the UK leaves the European Common Aviation Area. This could have a dramatic effect on routes, timetables and the location of facilities.

It is also unclear what will happen to UK economic and safety regulation, which is set at European level.

As the UK economic regulator, the CAA implements a regime set by the European Commission. This has entailed deep cuts to the funding that National Air Traffic Services gets from airlines.

The CAA also relies on the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to set safety standards. But the CAA has cut its safety regulators by about 33% over the past 15 years.

Since our manifesto was published, the government has agreed with Prospect, and the rest of the industry, that the UK should remain in the EASA.

The right Brexit deal

We want to see a Swiss-style bilateral agreement that means:

  • an agreement on landing rights for UK aircraft in EU member states, and intra-EU flying rights for UK operators, that minimises disruption to UK jobs and investment
  • continued membership of the EASA, so we benefit from shared capacity and expertise, instead of seeking to evade or undercut European safety standards
  • taking back control of economic and market regulation by exiting the EU performance regime and designing a framework that supports safety, quality and employment standards.
Steve Jary

Steve Jary


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