European Union: EU Carrier Blacklist - Improving Air Safety or Undermining Confidence in Third World Airlines?

Last Updated: 14 August 2006
Article by Keith Richardson

The overwhelming representation on the new EU Carrier Blacklist of airlines from a number of African countries - most of which do not operate into the EU - has attracted criticism and led to questions as to whether the blacklist is something of a disproportionate blunt instrument.

In December 2005, the European Commission ("EC") published EC Regulation 2111/2005 which established the procedure for the publication of a "Blacklist" of air carriers which would be subject to a ban on operating to, or operational restrictions within, the EU. The impetus giving rise to this initiative has been air accidents and incidents involving non-EU air carriers who continued to operate into some states within the EU whilst being banned on safety grounds by others.

The EC took the view that, in the interests of passenger safety and transparency for the travelling public, operating bans and restrictions should apply across the EU and a list of the affected carriers should be available to all prospective passengers.

The safety criteria considered by the EC and its Aviation Safety Committee were based on safety checks on aircraft at EU airports and include:

  • the use of poorly maintained, antiquated or obsolete aircraft;
  • inability of airlines to rectify shortcomings identified during inspections; and
  • the inability of the regulatory authority overseeing the airline to ensure that the airline was able to comply with safety requirements.

On 22 March this year, the first list of banned operators was published (EC Regulation 473/2006). 93 air carriers were subject to an EU wide ban and a further four were subject to operational restrictions. These carriers were predominantly from five African countries (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Swaziland) which were judged to have an inadequate system for regulatory oversight which rendered all carriers registered in these countries unsafe in the view of the EC.

In line with the requirement that the list should be updated at least every three months, an amended list was published on 20 June (EC Regulation 910/2006). This increased the number of banned carriers to 176 of which all but 12 were certified by one of the five African countries listed above. Three other carriers were subject to operational restrictions.

The EC takes the view in its covering press statement that the list has "...proved to be an effective incentive, with a number of countries and companies that had taken either no action or only inadequate action in response to the national bans agreeing to cooperate with the EC in correcting the security problems identified." Moreover, the EC asserts that it has been successful in making additional resources available to increase the technical assistance provided to countries which have safety levels adjudged to be inadequate, citing the Democratic Republic of the Congo as one example.

However, some of the carriers which are subject to the ban are complaining about the inequity of the blanket system of banning all carriers from a particular country based on the EC’s perception of the adequacy of that state’s system of regulatory oversight. For example, SA Airlink has argued that, although it is registered in Swaziland, its aircraft and pilots are registered in South Africa and thus subject to regulatory oversight by the South African CAA. The EC is examining the cooperation agreement between Swaziland and the South African SAA, but SA Airlink remains on the list of banned carriers published in June.

Others note that carriers have been named even though they have never operated into the EU and have no aspirations to do so or, alternatively, no longer operate at all. Whilst it is acknowledged that the EU has the right to control which carriers fly within its own airspace, the decision to "name and shame" carriers operating exclusively outside of the EU is questioned. The justification for this may be that the EC is seeking to provide a measure of protection for EU nationals and, if it regards a country’s regulatory oversight as sufficiently inadequate to ban aircraft from that state from flying into the EU, then it is reasonable to warn prospective passengers from the EU of the risks that they may be taking by flying on aircraft registered in that country outside of the EU.

Some carriers from the five African states which have been subject to a blanket ban have sought to argue that, although their regulatory oversight administration has been deemed to be inadequate by the EC, their operations are sound. This begs the question of how it would be possible to determine that such a carrier was maintaining adequate safety standards in the absence of a viable regulatory oversight authority. However, one carrier, HBO from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has managed to persuade the EC to grant it permission to operate into Belgium subject to operational restrictions which limit flights to its L-1011 aircraft despite the ban on all aircraft registered in that country. The EC states that it will consider airlines on a case by case basis and that there is no wish to penalise those which are well run - but if there is any ambiguity on safety issues then the tendency is to ban the airline rather than take a chance on safety.

Whilst at first glance the latest list of banned air carriers appears to be a damning indictment on African operators, a closer analysis reveals that only seven African countries are subject to bans and, of those, two have only one carrier each on the list. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is already taking advantage of the technical and financial assistance being offered by the EC and the World Bank which hopefully will help it and the other four countries subject to blanket bans on their operators to address the concerns raised by the EC.

Despite the fact that the initiative adopted by the EC may be regarded by some affected carriers as something of a blunt instrument, the impetus created by the operating bans for improving safety standards in Africa and the third world generally along with the promised additional resources to address safety oversight and regulation can only be a good thing for passengers in those countries who, in some cases, suffer an air accident rate six times higher than the EU.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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