EASA springs to life, but it’s still in infancy

 - October 8, 2007, 10:05 AM

The new European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) came almost silently to life last month–as if echoing the muted expectations that many in the aviation industry have of the organization. To optimists, the new body is Europe’s answer to the FAA, promising a new regime of clear, consistent and harmonized regulations and standards. To pessimists, it is the lesser evil to the current regime consisting of the ultimately impotent Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) and a disparate bunch of national aviation authorities (NAAs).

What makes EASA potentially more powerful is the fact that its requirements will be backed by the full force of European Union (EU) law, meaning that they will automatically apply at least in the 15 EU member states, which will rise to 23 next year. The other 14 JAA member states will need to have the EASA directives made law through their own legislative processes. According to the EC, “Further negotiations and political decisions” will be required before EASA’s legal relationship with non-EU states is finalized.

The JAA system has essentially amounted to nothing more than a non-binding agreement for member states to cooperate in the drafting of aviation regulations. This has left NAAs plenty of scope to persist in implementing rules as they see fit, and this has consistently undermined efforts to ensure a harmonized regulatory environment in Europe.

It is EASA’s legal authority–at least within the EU–that forms the bedrock of industry expectations that the new agency will mark the end to a maddening tendency for NAAs to insist on their own variations and additional requirements, even after years have been spent developing supposedly harmonized standards through the JAA. At face value, there should no longer be any wiggle room for the more wilful authorities–such as Britain’s notoriously hard-to-please Civil Aviation Authority–to usurp or distort JAA directives to their own ends.

The European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) has so far adopted a positive attitude toward EASA, which it presumes will indeed result in “consistent and coherent rulemaking.” The Brussels- based group is represented on the advisory board of interested parties appointed to oversee EASA.

High Hopes, but Still a Wary Eye
The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) has similarly high hopes of EASA, but has taken a somewhat more skeptical position on whether these will be fulfilled. “It is vital that EASA delivers on its main objective, which is to reduce the aggregate cost of regulation by eliminating national variations in equipment requirements,” declared ERA director general Mike Ambrose. He is concerned that self-serving NAAs will still find ways to persist in imposing their own standards and will thereby undermine the authority of the new agency. ERA’s bottom line continues to be that regulations must be driven purely by safety considerations and that no changes should be adopted before performing a thorough cost-benefit analysis.

Ambrose is concerned that the new European authority might follow EC past practice in trying to unilaterally enforce equipment standards that are at odds with those agreed globally through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The clearest example of this was the Commission’s attempt to ban the use of hush kits that it deemed to be “marginal” in Stage 3 noise compliance. The incident came close to provoking a full-blown transatlantic trade war.

The fact is that EASA’s brief from the EC goes beyond that of aviation safety. The EC regulation that created the agency (EC 1592/ 15/07/2002) expressly charges it with responsibility for “environmental protection,” and it is anticipated that the body will take further action to reduce both aircraft noise and emissions. This will take EASA into a highly contentious political domain because many air-transport interests–both inside and outside Europe–do not accept that the EC should unilaterally set environmental limits that go beyond those agreed multilaterally through ICAO.

What’s more, groups such as ERA are furious at what they see as a politically motivated determination to single out air transport for environmental restrictions that are not imposed on competing modes of transport, such as road and rail. The JAA has not previously tackled environmental protection issues relating to aviation.

EASA will gradually replace the JAA, but the timescale for this transition remains open-ended. The official timetable for EASA to take over completely from the JAA is 42 months from now–that is, by the end of March 2007. In the first phase, which began last month, its efforts are to focus on type certification of aircraft, engines and other products, as well as the approval of maintenance organizations. Eventually, it will start formulating its own operating requirements (to be designated EU-OPS), as well as taking on the licensing of aircrew and safety oversight of airports and ATC services.

A big question for many in the industry is to what extent EASA will be content simply to take existing JAA standards and requirements and transpose them into EU law.

Clearly, aircraft manufacturers that have already jumped through hoops to achieve JAA certification for their aircraft are not going to relish the prospect of expending yet more time and money going through an EASA process–even if the end result is no-strings-attached, Europe-wide approval for their products. But the EC has yet to make any firm commitment not to have EASA reinventing the wheel–as some fear it will–to accommodate a broader political agenda.

For example, even as EASA begins its work, the seemingly interminable discussion of JAA JAR-OPS 2 requirements for corporate aircraft operators is continuing. The European business aviation lobby is largely satisfied that the rules will not be unduly burdensome, especially since they will accept as a basis for compliance the International Standards for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) drawn up under the auspices of the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC). Imagine how frustrating it would be to discover that EASA disregards all this hard work and insists on developing its own requirements from scratch.

That said, the EC’s stated objectives for EASA do specify that it should “promote cost efficiency in the regulatory and certification process.” Furthermore, the EC has insisted that EASA will be free of political interference, with its executive director accountable to a management board consisting of both EC and member-state representatives. An appeals process is to be established for those wishing to challenge the validity of rulings. The aviation industry will be watching closely to see if these commitments are met.

NAA Roles
A key facet to the success of EASA will be the future role of Europe’s NAAs. A spokesman for the UK CAA confirmed that NAAs will effectively become regional offices of the new agency in that they will “operate under contract to EASA to fulfill its work in that country.” He insisted that NAAs will not duplicate the EASA role. But there is concern among industry figures that EASA will create yet another layer of bureaucracy and that there will be some overlapping of duties, at least until the JAA is folded into EASA.

According to the EC remit for EASA: “It will itself carry out certain executive tasks where collective action is more effective than individual action by the member states, as is the case with the issue of type certificates for aeronautical products. In other cases it will help the Commission monitor the correct application of the common rules by the member states.”

In truth, EASA seems a long way from being able to shoulder comprehensive regulatory authority for European aviation–not least because it started life on September 28 with just one single employee and no permanent home. After almost a year of squabbling, the management board finally agreed on the appointment of Patrick Goudou as executive director, having rejected several previous candidates.
Goudou is a 53-year-old French armaments engineer who has come from his country’s defense ministry, where he most recently served as director of the aeronautical maintenance service for its general delegation of armaments.

EASA’s first executive director has started his new job in a temporary office at the EC headquarters in Brussels. Until contracts can be agreed for permanent employees, Goudou is entirely dependent on JAA and NAA staff for administrative and technical support. The plan is to have hired 120 EASA staff by “early next year.” By stark contrast, the FAA’s payroll now runs to 48,000 employees, although, admittedly, this covers major activities such as ATC, which will never come under EASA’s remit.

In its parallel role with EASA, the JAA (with a permanent staff of just 61) will continue to work out of its own headquarters in the Dutch town of Hooffdorp, near Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The JAA’s current annual budget amounts to just €6.7 million ($7.2 million) and it is heavily reliant on NAAs to staff many of its activities.

No decision has been made on a permanent home for EASA. Historically, the process for selecting sites for EC institutions has been settled through a complex process of pork-barrel politics, and the German city of Cologne is rumored to be a front-runner in this particular contest.

Meanwhile, the consultation process for EASA’s new type-certification and maintenance-approval procedures got under way quietly over the summer. The consultation is being coordinated through the JAA.