Regional airline officials fear a regulatory void as EASA takes over

 - October 18, 2006, 11:17 AM

European regional airlines are concerned that a regulatory void could develop as oversight responsibilities pass to a new authority, and they have joined with other industry groups to seek assurance that won’t happen. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which has begun to take over responsibility for operational standards and flight-crew licensing (Ops and FCL), will have the power to mandate requirements, whereas the “old” Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) had “harmonized” regulations that national aviation authorities (NAAs) could adopt (or from which they could apply for exemptions to use their own local standards).

“There is increased urgency to establish respective roles for the EASA and the NAAs before [the agency’s] responsibilities increase,” according to European Regions Airline Association (ERA) president Antonis Simigdalas. Accordingly, along with the International Air Carriers Association (representing charter operators) and the Association of European Airlines (a regional lobby group, equivalent to the U.S. Air Transport Association), the ERA has written to JAA chief executive Andre Auer and EASA executive director Patrick Goudou asking for a briefing on the expected schedules for handing European aviation oversight to the new agency.

ERA technical-services general manager Nick Mower fears a black hole might develop during the changeover. “There is a possible [regulatory] void of about 18 months,” he warned. Under current schedules, a “big bang” JAA closure date looms at the end of next year, although many JAA specialist working groups (responsible for regulatory proposals) will have ceased work by the middle of next year. But the ERA doesn’t expect the EASA to have established legal “competencies” before September 2007, some 15 months later at least.

That scenario allows the JAA only about eight months to issue any notices of proposed amendment to existing rules, consult industry and process and publish new regulations. The ERA fears that the JAA will hand over some proposals to the EASA before it is ready to handle the work. Airlines fear that the EASA cannot recruit sufficient numbers of safety officials to manage Ops and FCL activity before September 2007, when such rules might begin to take effect.

According to ERA operations and safety manager Steve Garrett, airlines worry that without continued JAA oversight, individual countries might introduce new regulations that do not match developments elsewhere. “If [states] are left without a central agency they might go off in different directions, [which] could ruin all the good [harmonization] work done over the past few years.”

Current plans call for JAA headquarters in the Netherlands to close on December 31 next year–although the training office there will remain–with a new liaison office to open in Cologne to coordinate with non-European Union (EU) states. Mower points out that a working group charged with disbandment of almost all JAA activity, funding of remaining work and transfer to EASA had not involved industry participation.

Some European states reportedly do not want EASA to  administer current JAA operations standards (JAR OPS) before new EU regulations take effect because of a perceived lack of agency competence and a reluctance to surrender national authority. Mower said this makes September 2007 an optimistic date. The ERA wants to know how EASA can administer existing JAA regulations with few JAA personnel remaining and whether industry will have a voice during the interim period.

Mower identifies EASA budget arrangements (particularly fees and charges) as a further “hot topic” for Europe’s regionals. Although the sum looks lower than previously predicted, the EASA expects to finish the year with a E1 million ($1.2 million) deficit, which ERA officials attribute to the outsourcing of too much work and poor budgetary control.

They say that EASA income might in fact turn out to be less than 30 percent of expected values, while costs have exceeded predictions and cash-flow problems have proved worse than expected because EASA assumed payment of its invoices within 30 days. “The agency appears to be using the most expensive NAAs to do a high percentage of work,” says Mower. “This should all have been budgeted for.”

The ERA says that since NAAs now have fewer resources, the aggregate cost of regulation “must be seen to decrease,” although the European Commission has so far rejected calls for an additional subsidy to the EASA to cover the deficit. This has led the industry to call for a cash reserve to smooth the new regulator’s fluctuating cash flow. “The agency should have a long-term strategy and a realistic and attainable business plan, supported by a strategic budget,” said Mower. “The EASA should not be compromised by lack of funds.”