European safety oversight: understaffed & inconsistent

Achieving the highest possible level of safety in aviation is paramount and requires effective day-to-day safety oversight. Yet, national authorities, responsible by definition for safety oversight, find themselves in a difficult situation to perform their safety-related obligations with dwindling resources and, at times, decreasing competences.

Aircraft accident and incident investigation is just one piece that falls under the safety obligations of national CAAs, but the discrepancies in the two investigations on Ryanair’s fuel emergency landings carried out by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) and the Spanish Aviation Authority (AESA), illustrated that there may be reasons for concern. With one report exonerating the carrier of flying with too little fuel, and the other claiming the first report was not based on a thorough investigation, things get bizarre.

The general rule is that safety oversight in aviation is a national responsibility. In Europe however, with the existence of a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) the situation is more complicated. The national authority is responsible for the oversight of its carriers certificated nationally. However, national authorities may agree to delegate oversight tasks to the authority(ies) where activities take place or to EASA. So companies with foreign bases could see oversight performed by different (national) authorities.

Safety experts in ICAO remind us that quality of safety oversight systems around the world varies significantly. According to Henry Gourdji from ICAO, 45% of all ICAO Member States lack basic safety oversight capabilities to certify their aviation service providers1. In May 2012, ICAO rang the alarm, pointing towards chronically under-resourced national aviation authorities, particularly in the European and North Atlantic regions. A similar concern has been voiced by Patrick Goudou, Executive Director of EASA in a News editorial in July 2012. “A key risk I see for the future of the aviation system is the conjunction of a difficult economic situation in the aviation industry with the reduction of staff in oversight organisations – both a consequence of the global financial crisis. The good safety records we enjoy cannot result in decreased vigilance or in questioning the resources needed by regulators and oversight authorities to fulfil their mission”, said Goudou.

Oversight performed by competent authorities is a key pillar to maintaining and improving the safety level in aviation. Specific cases, such as the Ryanair incident investigation, are a good opportunity to think about the challenges authorities face, especially given the limited economic resources and with performance-based rules picking up speed. Under such a performance-based system it is even more important for national CAAs to have all necessary resources at hand to continuously check and safeguard the safety of air travel.


1. “An Incremental Approach to Performance Based Oversight”, Henry Gourdji, EASA Safety Conference 2012, October 10‐11, Cologne, Germany http://bit.ly/VSvQu7