On Thursday - the very same day that the news was dominated by the GermanWings plane crash, and regulators and airlines across Europe were responding by tightening rules about the number of staff needed in a cockpit at any given time - a colleague spotted that the UK government had just quietly released a document called ‘General Aviation Strategy’. This document has a foreword from the Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority which contains this gem of a sentence:
"[The Civil Aviation Authority] is already making a key contribution to fulfilling the Government's aspiration for general aviation to enjoy a safety regulation system that imposes the minimum necessary burden and empowers individuals to make responsible decisions to secure acceptable safety outcomes."
Um. What? On this day of all days, the man responsible for regulating Britain’s planes is telling people to take responsibility for their own safety in planes? Incidentally, this is the only time the word 'safety' appears in his foreword. In fact, the whole ‘General Aviation Strategy’ has lots to say about getting rid of regulation, and very little to say about ensuring safety.
At this point I should fess up to something I’ve only discovered since: ‘general aviation’ is a term that covers all civilian aviation except commercial passenger airlines, so this doesn’t directly apply to flights like the GermanWings one. But, as far as I can tell, it does go far beyond Biggles-style hobbyists, covering everything from emergency medical evacuation to corporate business flights to air taxis.
So you would have thought it wasn’t the best day for a government to release a document the thrust of which is, ‘Gosh, why did anyone think it was a good idea to impose all these silly rules on something as harmless as flying a plane?! Yes, of course we’ll get rid of them right away, right away!’
Just as a little taster, other highlights of the document include a promise of “thorough deregulation for GA so that it is policed only to the extent needed to comply with international obligations and to provide appropriate safety and security". Apparently, “where deregulation is not possible then the CAA will consider the scope for removing as much of GA as possible from their regulatory oversight”.
As it’s keen to point out, a lot of the recommendations come from the government’s Red Tape Challenge consultation with the sector, who – quelle surprise – felt “strongly” that they were over-regulated. One of my favourite contributions highlighted on the Red Tape Challenge website begins with the immortal words “Safety is of course important, but …” (Another little factoid I discovered while researching this blog: accident rates in general aviation appear to be orders of magnitude higher than for commercial passenger planes.)
Following on from the Red Tape Challenge, the government set up a ‘Challenge Panel’ of industry representatives to tell it what to do; it has implemented many of its recommendations. The strategy’s Ministerial foreword pleads with the industry to “hold our feet to the fire” in pressing for further scrapping of regulation both at home and in Europe. Protecting passengers (or indeed meeting our climate targets) features nowhere in this foreword.
Meanwhile, the Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority says of his relationship with the industry that "the ability for us to work together so effectively is an almost unique advantage compared to many other countries." In other words, with apologies for the geekiest sentence ever, he's saying that the UK has a comparative advantage in regulatory capture.
And as usual, I think that’s the real story here: basically one of political capture by business interests. While Ministers talk a good game on dealing with corporate lobbying, they're quietly institutionalising it – and damn the consequences for the rest of us. When it comes to aviation safety, it looks like they could be about to find themselves squarely on the wrong side of the argument.