How to make Europe’s airports safer

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU fears the United States has already made up its mind to extend the ban on flights from Europe to the US and has told airports and airlines to be prepared. [Steve Jurvetson/Flickr]

It might sound counterintuitive for an industry – especially in the UK – to call for it to be regulated by the EU. Yet this is what British ground handlers are calling for, writes John Geddes.

John Geddes is head of the European Chapter of the Airport Services Association (ASA) and Group Company Secretary, John Menzies Plc.

Let’s start with the good news: Flying in Europe has never been safer. Continuous investment in technology, infrastructure and training has made aviation steadily safer for the travelling public. Given the increase in traffic over the past decades, this is a fantastic achievement. 

But there’s a catch. First, there’s a new kid on the block in our airspace: unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. The use of drones by commercial and private operators is expected to really take off in the coming years. Second, airports are becoming more and more crowded because their infrastructure is not keeping pace with the growth in flight and passenger volume. That’s why we cannot rest on our laurels if we want to improve safety even more.

One of the main reasons why flying is the safest way to travel is that the EU has set stringent safety standards for the industry. Europe’s regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), has done a great job overseeing airlines, airports and manufacturers. Unfortunately, EASA does not yet have a mandate to regulate drones and ground handlers, the companies which provide the services around the aircraft and look after passengers and their luggage on behalf of the airlines. These services used to be done by the airlines themselves, but are now provided by specialist companies that are the real experts in the field. The ground handlers and their employees bear the brunt of an increasingly crowed airport infrastructure.

All things considered, regulatory oversight in Europe works well, but we see two obvious gaps that must be filled: drones and ground handling. The European Commission has already reacted: As part of its Aviation Package adopted last December, it proposed extending EASA’s mandate to cover these two areas. Unfortunately, the reactions towards the issue of ground handling have thus far been mixed, although this seems to have more to do with skepticism about giving the EU additional competencies than anything related to airport services.

We believe that it would be a serious omission if MEPs or member states refuse to give EASA the mandate to set EU-wide minimum standards for ground handling, as this would fundamentally undermine the integrity of the regulation. It would also mean that every link of the aviation chain except for one would benefit from EU-wide standards. And that one link is absolutely crucial for the safety of passengers. It is also critical for the safety of airport workers, as ground handling companies tend to be the largest employers at airports. That’s why most aviation stakeholders – including the airport services sector, airports and trade-unions – are all in favour of the proposed EU-wide minimum ground handling standard.

As ground handlers, we would like to go even farther: We call for a European standard that is backed up by an EU ground handling certificate – an operating license, similar to those used for airlines. Without this kind of certificate, there would be no streamlining of training and operating procedures, which is necessary to further increase safety. The result would be multiple audits as well as additional training requirements and administrative costs. An EU-wide standard without an EU ground handling certificate would still be a missed opportunity.

It might sound counterintuitive for an industry – and an industry representative from the UK – to call for it to be regulated by the EU, and maybe it is. But the ground handling industry is growing and international by its very nature. And as always, safety is our number one priority – it is part of our sector’s DNA.

Fortunately, few incidents in ground handling are serious, but every incident we can avoid with more harmonised standards can help us prevent injuries, property damage and flight cancellations and delays. And we believe that is something worth fighting for.

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