Leaked report shows UK at increased risk of air accidents

After ten days of hearing the repercussions of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, it is time to take seriously the threat from aircraft flying over our densely-populated capital city. It's a subject that rarely enters the Heathrow expansion debate but a leaked report shows that the risk of air accidents has increased - even without a third runway. 

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the air safety regulator, raised serious concerns in a draft report that was never published. The Guardian newspaper has brought the findings out into the open.  

Inspectors at the CAA warned bosses that they did not have sufficient resources to do their job of overseeing air safety. The report says that cost-cutting and an overstretched workforce at the CAA have increased the risk of air accidents in Britain. It also states that there were “significant weaknesses” in the CAA’s safety division, including the monitoring of flight training and the licensing of pilots.

The provisional report – produced by the CAA’s head of strategy and safety assurance at the request of senior directors but apparently shelved – warned that the problems it identified were “those most likely to feature as contributory causal factors in aircraft accidents”.

A staff survey detailed within the report showed that fewer than 10% of employees believed their colleagues had time to undertake important safety activities to an acceptable standard. 

Fewer than 20% of staff agreed that all of the organisation’s important safety functions were adequately covered and that activities were “sufficient to assure ourselves that we are protecting the safety of the public”.

The Guardian calls the findings "damning". They include: 

• A large number of licences issued to pilots contained errors.

• The CAA was failing to properly oversee flight training organisations.

• “Significant staff reductions … have led in some cases to insufficient access to expertise.”

• Important safety activities required by the European Aviation Safety Agency (the EU regulator) were “significantly behind schedule”.

• The CAA’s “capability does not match the true demands”.

The review and survey was proposed by the CAA’s safety action group and commissioned by safety director Mark Swan, amid a shakeup of the CAA. 

The group proposed the review “to ensure that the organisation continued to be fit for purpose to deliver effective safety oversight”.

The review rated the overall fitness for purpose of the safety division as “adequate” but it found that “in all areas reviewed, there is evidence that the resources available … are at minimum levels. There is a general lack of resilience.” 

It added: “The areas that appear to be currently suffering the most are those most critical to protect public safety.”

One small jet creates an inferno when it hits the A27 Shoreham by-pass during an air display

One small jet creates an inferno when it hits the A27 Shoreham by-pass during an air display

The Shoreham airshow crash in August 2015, in which 11 people were killed, prompted questions from the accident investigators about the CAA regime. 

The official report by the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) revealed that the CAA had inspected just 2.8% of the airshows it approved in 2014, and did not require to see or approve risk assessments before permitting the Shoreham show to go ahead. 

Although the CAA was not directly affected by government cuts, it was pressured by ministers to embrace more “light-touch regulation”, especially with regards to general aviation, which includes airshows. 

Grant Shapps, at the time a minister without portfolio, had demanded the “minimum necessary burden” for private flying in a so-called red-tape challenge to the CAA in 2013.

The chief executive of the CAA, Andrew Haines, was appointed in 2009 with a brief to modernise the agency, and was incentivised to complete a transformation programme that saw the wage bill slashed. 

The regulator is funded by the airlines and operators it regulates, which have lobbied to lower the charges. The CAA pledged to freeze all its fees and charges, the source of its revenues, for three years in 2011 and by 2013 said it would be saving the equivalent of 120 full-time jobs.

Insiders claim that pressure to run the authority as a commercial enterprise has diminished the CAA’s capacity to monitor safety. A significant number of highly trained and experienced staff in the safety division have left the CAA in recent years. 

Prospect, the union representing safety inspectors, has commented that a significant number of its members had left the CAA. 

Put simply, they (CAA staff) are no longer confident that they can do their job – keeping the public safe. But they can’t speak out: about 30 have left with confidentiality agreements in their exit packages.
— Steve Jary, national secretary, aviation, at Prospect

The CAA's response pointed out that the UK has one of the best air safety records in the world and claimed the CAA is recognised as one of the world’s leading aviation regulators. 

A CCA spokesperson added, “We have consistently protected frontline safety roles at a time when other parts of the public sector have had to undertake drastic cuts.”