Air safety management in the EU


National air safety authorities in the EU are gradually handing over their powers to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is about to become a ‘one-stop-shop’ for managing the bloc’s airspace, amid business fears that additional rules could hamper their competitiveness.

The European sky remains divided into 27 different airspace sectors, which remain under the control of national governments. This fragmentation not only has negative repercussions in terms of the efficiency of Europe's air travel, forcing aircraft to fly through numerous air-traffic control systems to get to their destination, but also raises safety concerns by creating additional traffic jams in the sky. 

To address the efficiency, safety and pollution issues, in 1999 the European Commission launched an initiative aimed at creating a 'Single European Sky' (SES). A series of regulations came into force in 2004 with a view to implementation by 2025. But, conceding that these regulations had not delivered the expected results in important areas, the Commission put forward a second package of legislation (SES II) in June 2008. The package included a proposal to extend the European Aviation Safety Agency's (EASA) competences to make it the EU's only air safety regulator. 

Air safety includes all the rules and processes that enable commercial, leisure and cargo aeroplanes to fly safely across the European Union. It includes rules on aircraft construction and use, infrastructure safety, data management and analysis, flying operations, and cargo. 

Air safety management aims to spot potential accidents and incidents before they occur. It is not the same as air security, which seeks to prevent voluntary illegal and harmful acts in the field of aviation (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on Aviation Security). 

Current air safety governance

Every EU country has ratified the 1944 convention of Chicago, which established the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The role of this United Nations institution is to ensure that international civil aviation grows in a safe and coordinated manner. 

On the basis of ICAO standards and recommendations, the European Commission developed harmonised EU safety standards, designed specifically for Europe's airspace, which go beyond the ICAO's minimum requirements. 

In 2003, the Commission's competence on air safety increased with the launch of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is slowly evolving into the centrepiece of the EU's aviation safety strategy. Its initial mission was to promote the highest common standards of safety and environmental protection in civil aviation, and oversee their implementation by the EU 27.

Since March 2008, EASA has also been responsible for regulating airline companies' operations and licensing pilots and flight crew, as well as safety surveillance and the certification of third-country aircraft. 

EASA cooperates with national aviation authorities on carrying out operational tasks, such as the certification of individual aircraft. It also cooperates with the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) and the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol) - the three intergovernmental bodies through which individual states cooperated before EASA was established.

European air transport safety 'chain'

Europe's air safety system is based on close collaboration between the European Commission, EASA, national civil aviation authorities, aircraft manufacturers, airlines and airports. 

EASA issues aerospace manufacturers (like Boeing or Airbus) with type certificates, but each individual aircraft is certified by the country in which it is registered. Such decentralisation is considered more efficient than centralising everything within a single agency.

In both their design and manufacture, aircraft must meet strict safety specifications and, throughout its life, a plane registered in Europe must undergo regular inspections. A single European Black List of companies in serious breach of safety requirements replaced different national black lists in March 2006.

Airlines must respect standards in areas like fire safety rules (on the ground and on board) and flight crew working-time limits, while airport operators are in charge of clearing obstacles from runways, extending aircraft movement areas, and maintaining marking and lighting, among other things.

European air traffic management (ATM) is still fragmented into 27 national systems, but a European programme called Sesar seeks to modernise EU air traffic control infrastructure to ensure fluidity and improve traffic safety, among other things.

Other air safety factors include accident inquiries, which help to make sure that the necessary lessons are drawn from accidents, conditions for granting pilot licenses and flight crew, and the training of airport and ATM staff. 

Challenges to European aviation safety governance 

The Commission's impact assessment on the new proposed regulation extending EASA responsibilities identified three main challenges for European air safety:

  • Air traffic growth is expected to continue unabated at a rate of 2-5% per year. Should nothing be done to improve safety further and the accident rate remain at its current level, there would be a "significant and continuous rise in European aviation accidents". In addition, new technologies and capacity bottlenecks at both aerodromes and for air traffic management and air navigation (ATM/ANS) systems require a harmonised approach to avoid an "exponential rise in risk" for these key players in the air transport chain.  
  • Loopholes in the current regulatory framework as a result of slow and consensus-based decision-making, different and overlapping regulatory bodies, a lack of central coordination and different safety levels must be addressed. According to the Commission, effective regulatory action can only take place if the following are addressed simultaneously: rulemaking, certification/licensing/oversight, and standardisation/enforcement of compliance.  
  • lack of harmonised and enforceable rules  has lead to regulatory fragmentation and gaps and differences in certification and oversight.   

Future air safety governance

Safety risks are expected to quadruple if traffic doubles, and air traffic in Europe is set to double within the next fifteen years, according to EU figures. The main risks are expected to affect aerodrome infrastructure (airports, airfields and runways) and equipment and its operation, as well as affecting the capabilities of air traffic management (ATM) and air navigation (ANS) systems. 

The latter are not yet a part of EASA's mission, but following an agreement struck between the Council and the Parliament in March 2009 (EURACTIV 26/03/09), EASA is to become the 'one-stop-shop' of the EU's aviation safety strategy. The agency will take over from national authorities to establish precise, harmonised and binding rules for ATM and ANS by 2012 and for airport safety by 2013. It will also begin to strictly oversee their implementation by the EU 27 in its role as Europe's watchdog for aviation safety regulation. 

Indeed, under previous rules governed by the Joint Aviation Authorities, recommendations were only implemented voluntarily, and former EU air safety operating rules (EU OPS) specifying minimum safety procedures were appicable to commercial air transport only. In contrast, EASA rules will be binding and will apply to all aerial work, including general and private aviation. Military and police aviation are excluded from EASA competence.  

The aim is to have a wider-ranging approach to managing the aviation 'safety chain' and to overcome regulatory gaps and overlaps by means of a single EASA rule-making and certification process.

EASA will also assume the current functions of Eurocontrol, which will gradually become the operational arm for implementing the 'Single Sky', as well as the managing and 'performance review' body of the EU's ATM network.

The main goal of EU aviation safety policy is to minimise the risk of accidents, and its main spheres of action are setting safety rules, ensuring that they are being complied with and sanctioning those who are not complying, said Roberto Salvarani, a former head of unit for air safety at the European Commission.

Regarding the Community blacklist, Salvarani said "the aviation world is aware that we master a very powerful weapon against sub-standard operators and sub-standard countries. They are aware of the heavy economic consequences of ending up on the list."

"It is very important for all Europeans to enjoy the same level of safety. It would be incomprehensible if some member states took stricter measures and others less so. We need a high and harmonised level of safety in the European sky. This is the advantage of the Union, as it raises the bar for safety standards across the board," said former EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot.

The big advantage of EASA is that it brings together air safety expertise developed over the years by different countries, said European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Executive Director Patrick Goudou. "Our goal is to bring all European member states to the same high and uniform level of air safety." 

"The eventual extension of the EASA system to all aspects of aviation safety is logical and technically consistent. It will guarantee safety across the aviation system and a level-playing field for European industry. The agency will work in partnership with Eurocontrol and SESAR in order to avoid any overlap or gap in the regulatory system," Goudou added.

EASA does certification for type notifications and thus checks technical equipments used in aviation, explained EASA press officer Elisabeth Schöffmann. It also does standardisation and checks whether EU law is properly implemented across the EU 27. Furthermore, it conducts safety analysis and research, collects data on accident statistics to find out patterns, and releases research projects for tender. The agency uses existing material "as much as possible" and writes new rules on existing material, but "for some things, there is not any existing material," she added. 

The Association of European Airlines (AEA) supported the creation of EASA and the extension of its responsibilities. It was "high time" for member states and the Commission to speak with one voice, said Fabio Gamba, deputy secretary-general of the AEA. "Meanwhile, we need to be careful about what EASA is doing, as its creation and enlarged responsibilities should not be interpreted as a blank cheque to re-invent the wheel. The agency should take note of previous agreements and not just open dossiers for the sake of opening them in order to put an EASA stamp on them," Gamba added. 

The AEA deplored the fact that EASA had reopened a lot of dossiers that had already been closed and had no reason to be revisited on safety grounds. "The agency should have copy-pasted the rules from previous agreements to avoid time-consuming and costly administrative burdens and creating redundancies," Gamba continued. 

He also argued that EASA had been a target for a lot of lobbying by unions, leading to proposals for rules that would bring extra costs to industry and customers - such as the need for two co-pilots instead of one. "We can only hope that EASA has a balanced approach and will in the future become a more authoritative body, basing its action on clear evidence," Gamba concluded.

According to the AEA, if EASA recommendations for new flight time limitations (FTL) for pilots were implemented, then airlines would need to employ 15-20% more pilots and many direct long-haul services would become too costly to operate. AEA argues that the science behind a recent EASA-commissioned study on FTL is "flawed" and is not supported by the delivery of "safe operation over many years and millions of flights". 

On the contrary, both the European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents airline pilots in Europe, and the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations, welcomed EASA study on FTL, as the report recognises that fatigue is dangerous. They are calling for an urgent review of Community rules on the matter.

"Any European aviation safety strategy should reflect that safety is often not only a technical matter but is also strongly determined by human factors," states Philip von Schöppenthau from the ECA. "EU rules on pilot fatigue have been demonstrated to be insufficient and should be changed quickly. When boarding a European airplane, passengers must be able to trust in the European legislator that they are protected by adequate safety legislation that does not ignore scientific evidence." ECA hopes EASA and the European Commission will acknowledge the human factors side of flight safety and both increase the quality of pilot training Europe-wide and work towards reducing the risk of pilot fatigue." 

The Flight Safety Foundation, an international organisation engaged in research, auditing, education and advocacy to improve aviation safety, draws further attention to the human factors of aviation safety. "In 85% of all accidents, human error has been involved. This is not unique to aviation: human errors occur in any industry. And in aviation, it is not necessarily the pilot who makes mistakes. Mistakes can be made by an airline manager on the ground, a mechanic, an air traffic controller and even aircraft designers," it said. 

The French National Trade Association for Commercial Air Transport group, the Fédération nationale de l'aviation marchande (FNAM), points to the technical, social and economic impacts that modifying currently complex civil aviation rules will have. It underlines the need to ensure democratic control of EASA throug renewed governance, assigning roles to policy, elected officials and stakeholders. 

It argues that if EASA recommendations on FTL were passed, French companies would need to employ 20-25% more pilots without any guarantee of "a quantifiable effect on safety of the flights". Financially, for the Air France Group alone this would mean €300-€350 million in extra annual costs. According to FNAM, such extra costs would increase demand for flights by non-European companies and have a "disastrous effect" on jobs created by European companies. 

FNAM also criticises EASA plans to introduce a mandatory "European extension" [Operational Suitability Certificate (OSC)] for existing plane type certification, arguing that it would only create additional costs for airlines and earn continuous 'supervision' and certification royalties for the agency. Such an extension would also lead to a distortion of international competition, as certificates and their related costs would not apply to non-European fleets. 

Airline operators in general point to an EASA basic regulation stating that one of the agency's objectives is to promote cost-efficiency in regulatory and certification processes, and to avoid duplication at national and European level so as not to impose unjustified costs on operators.

They also argue that EASA rulemaking proposals are not "a simple transfer of EU-OPS," and desribe EASA's new rule structure as "radically different both from the previous one and from the ICAO standards," "confusing" and "not user-friendly". 

Furthermore, the new structure and rule hierarchy appear to be a potential source of misunderstanding, complexity and legal uncertainty, as they "downgrade some essential safety rules into soft law" and mere guidance material. 

Airports Council International-Europe (ACI-Europe) stresses the need to make it mandatory for EASA to formaly consult stakeholders. It calls for the introduction of a separate "stakeholder body" within EASA to facilitate consultation on proposed rules, "as this has not always been properly done in the past". 

As for EASA's forthcoming powers on airports and aerodromes, ACI hopes the agency will act "diplomatically". It underlines that airports are already subject to "enormous amounts of regulation" regarding the majority of on-site operations, such as airport charges, land use, slots, security, passengers with reduced mobility, and limits on movements, etc. 

ACI further fears that extending EASA's powers may have an important impact on small airports given that they are often located in remote regions, where airport operators have specific infrastructural requirements. "Some of these airports may never be in a position to achieve full regulatory compliance," it stated, calling for future regulations to promote flexibility.

"High standards and innovative safety practice form the backbone of the European aviation industry that already exists today. Without real engagement with stakeholders and experts on the ground, EASA will miss the opportunity to make its extension of powers operationally-feasible," ACI concluded. 

  • 2003: EASA created.
  • June 2007: EU/US International Aviation Safety Conference.
  • March 2008: First extension of EASA's powers.
  • 2009: Second extension of EASA's powers.
  • 25 March 2009: European Parliament adopts the Single European Sky II package, which completes and updates both Single European Sky I and the European Aviation Safety Agency's (EASA) regulations. 
  • 2-4 June 2009: EU/US International Aviation Safety conference 
  • 30 Jan. 2009: EASA published draft opinions on implementing rules for air operations of community operators.
  • End Jan. 2010: EASA to adopt opinion on implementing rules for air operations of Community operators.
  • May 2010: EASA to publish new rules for pilot licensing.
  • Autumn 2010: EASA to publish draft proposal for new flight time limitations.
  • By mid 2011: EASA to publish opinion related to the first extension of its powers.
  • By 8 April 2012: EASA rules on pilot licensing and air operations need to be applied by all EU 27.

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