Europe’s Dream of Safer Skies

31 August 2006 (Last Updated August 31st, 2006 18:30)

As the number of flights rises, more needs to be done to maintain Europe's excellent aviation safety record. Matthias Ruete, head of the EU's Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, explains how EU-wide regulation will keep Europe's skies safe.

Europe’s Dream of Safer Skies

Although Europe has an excellent safety record, it could be improved, especially considering the rapid increase in flights. Over the last 15 years, flights have more than doubled, a trend facilitated in part by the establishment of the internal market for air transport, and one that looks set to continue in the medium term.

Until recently, there were no comprehensive Europe-wide safety standards and, in general, national governments were free to implement their own regulations. For European passengers to be sure that all planes maintain the highest levels of safety all EU member states need to have the same standards.

The European Commission believes that the best way to protect air passengers is to ensure that all member states are subject to the same levels of safety. European passengers need to know that every aeroplane they board to fly to and from
Europe, whether operated by EU or non-EU airlines, are subject to standardised safety checks.

FOR THE RECORD

Over the last 30 years, air transport has become one of the safest modes of transport in Europe. With less than one victim (0.8) per one billion passenger kilometres compared with 0.4 for rail transport (twice as good), but eight for cars (ten times worse than aviation) and 160 (200 times worse) for motorcycles.

In 1974, 2.1 million commercial flights were recorded over Europe, with 472 fatalities; that is, 225 victims per million flights. In 1995, 20 years later, there were only 71 fatalities, even though flights had tripled to six million; that is, fewer than 12 victims for every million flights (see Figure 1). This 20-fold improvement is unparalleled in any other type of transport.

Since then, this level has been maintained but never improved upon. Some years are better than others; 2005 was a bad year in Europe with a ratio of 16.3 victims per million flights, making it the worst year since 1992.

MORE FLIGHTS

"The Commission has extended the EASA's mission to air operations, crew licences and safety of foreign carriers."

European air travel is expected to double from the current level of approximately nine million flights per year to 18 million by 2025 (see Figure 2). If the safety ratio does not improve, this will also mean double the total number of victims.

Since 1995 this trend has gradually started to be realised; there were 187 aviation casualties in the period 1990–94 compared to 344 between 2000 and 2004 (see Figure 3).

SAFER SKIES

Two aspects of European aviation safety – aircraft safety and environmental impact – have been standardised across the EU since the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) was established in 2002 to provide a high and uniform level of aviation safety. This has also helped reinforce fair competition within the internal market.

In 2005, the European Commission decided to propose an extension of the EASA's mission by giving it new responsibilities over the whole aviation area and the behaviour of airlines. It will eventually control the conditions for operating an aircraft, and be responsible for issuing, maintaining, amending, limiting, suspending or revoking an operator’s certificate.

The EASA will also oversee pilots' licences to ensure that they comply with common European rules on knowledge, skill and language proficiency.

The EASA employs around 200 professionals and is carrying out the certification of civilian aircraft, including the largest ever built in the history of aviation: the Airbus A380.

EASA common rules are compulsory for member states, and when they come into force it will be on the same day across Europe, thus eliminating duplication of the legal work necessary for transposition in each and every state. Membership of the EASA extends beyond the union's borders. In addition to the EU-25, Iceland and Norway are also members.

The EASA improves aviation safety by:

  • Helping the European Commission to prepare legislation, and the member states and industry to put this legislation into effect
  • Adopting certification specifications and guidance material, conducting technical
  • inspections, and issuing certificates where centralised action is more efficient
  • Helping the European Commission to monitor the application of EU legislation

SETTING THE STANDARD

Before the EASA was established, each member state adopted national safety legislation inspired by minimum international safety standards. These international standards were not legally binding and implementation differed widely between member states.

Most safety rules are drawn up by a variety of bodies, such as the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) and its technical body; the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAAs); and the Group of Aerodrome Safety Regulators (GASR). These bodies draw up voluntary rules supplementing those established worldwide by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

"The safety of aircraft operated by third-country carriers in European airspace cannot be left to the supervision of national aviation authorities."

Since they are produced on the basis of intergovernmental cooperation, these rules are only applied if the states concerned are willing to do so. As a result, there are still considerable differences between the various countries and unfortunately the highest standards are not always applied. This lack of uniformity in Europe also has a negative effect on the internal market.

Moreover, the safety of aircraft operated by third-country carriers in European airspace cannot be left to the supervision of national aviation authorities (NAAs). Assessment measures by the destination country are permitted under international law (Chicago Convention); however, isolated action by individual member states has a limited effect.

A company restricted for safety reasons in one member state could still continue to operate in neighbouring European states. A strong and effective response to this unsatisfactory situation is urgently required.

The Commission has therefore extended the EASA's mission to air operations, crew licences and safety of foreign carriers. This will be followed by a gradual second phase of extension to air navigation services (ANS), air traffic management and airport safety, to be fully implemented by 2010.

The functions of the EASA are currently being progressively extended to include:

  • Airworthiness of the aircraft and their environmental impact (adopted in 2002)
  • Pilots and cabin crews, air operations and safety of foreign aircraft (legislative proposal adopted by the Commission in November 2005)
  • Safety and interoperability of ANS, ATM and airports (legislative proposal for the second extension planned for late 2006)

Extending the tasks of the EASA to all aviation domains is the best way to further improve safety while avoiding the costly duplication of rulemaking activities.

ENSURING SAFETY

Merely publishing rules is not sufficient to ensure aviation safety; the EASA needs to monitor the practical application of these rules and learn from past accidents and incidents.

There are a number of key principles characterising the proposal by the Commission to gradually extend the competencies of the EASA:

  • Common safety and interoperability rules for the 'total aviation system' will provide a quantum leap in terms of aviation safety
  • Common rules will be proportionate to the complexity of operations (for example, commercial operators will require certification while others will just need 'self declaration')
  • Tasks will be distributed between the EASA and national authorities, and some responsibility will be delegated to approved organisations (assessment bodies will be empowered to directly release licences to recreational pilots, for instance)
  • The practice of 'controlling the controllers' will ensure uniform practical implementation
  • The EASA and national authorities will be separated from independent accident/incident investigators
  • There will be a gradual evolution exploiting expertise already available in other organisations, such as aviation authorities, Eurocontrol and aerodrome safety regulators (GASR)
  • The acquis communautaire for aviation, including the Single European Sky initiative, will be further developed

In all aviation domains the EASA will be responsible for the development of common rules and for standardisation of their practical application within member states.

It will manage all substantial tasks related to certification, licensing, approval and supervision of airlines, airports and other organisations to ensure aviation safety. The implementation of these tasks will be distributed between the EASA and national authorities, whose role will remain essential.