The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has announced changes to two of its requirements aimed at improving offshore helicopter safety. It follows discussions with the oil and gas industry, helicopter operators and representatives of the offshore workforce and pilots.
In February the CAA announced a series of measures to improve the safety of offshore operations. These included the introduction of seating restrictions on offshore flights from 1 June 2014, only allowing passengers to fly if they are seated next to a push-out window exit so they can escape in an emergency. This would be an interim measure until improved emergency breathing equipment is provided.
Since February, the new Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group, set up by the CAA, has been working to develop the recommendations and oversee their implementation.
The regulator said that new information had led it to delay the implementation of the seating restrictions until 1 September 2014. Reasons for the change include:
• Evidence provided by the oil and gas industry that reducing helicopter capacity through seating restrictions could have an adverse impact on safety critical maintenance work due to take place at offshore installations over the summer.
• Confirmation that the first improved breathing system units – which would remove the need for seating restrictions – won’t be available before mid-July.
• The recent certification of a redesigned gear shaft for the Airbus Helicopters EC225 – enabling it to be fitted on existing helicopters of this type. The CAA said that this is an important safety modification which should be implemented as quickly as possible, but will also require helicopters being temporarily taken out of service, further reducing capacity at this busy time for offshore safety maintenance.
The second change is to significantly bring forward the date from which the improved Emergency Breathing System (EBS) will be compulsory. This will now be 1 January 2015 rather than 1 April 2016. The new system will deliver a significant improvement in safety for those travelling offshore and is expected to gain safety approval this month.
CAA Head of Flight Operations Rob Bishton said:
“The safety of those who work offshore is our absolute priority and as such we must also consider their safety on offshore installations as well as onboard flights.
“We have listened carefully to the views of the industry, the unions and the helicopter operators. The changes to timescales we have announced today will mean that helicopter flights will only be permitted after 1 January 2015 if passengers are fitted with the improved emergency breathing equipment – that’s much earlier than originally planned. But we are also giving the industry an extra three months before the temporary seating restrictions are applied, so that they can complete planned, safety-critical maintenance work offshore over the summer.”
The CAA said that it also understood workforce concerns about its plans to prevent helicopter operators carrying passengers whose body size means they couldn’t escape through push-out window exits in an emergency.
In response to CAA’s announcement today Oil & Gas UK CEO Malcolm Webb said:
“The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) consultation with industry has been highly constructive, prompting and accelerating the introduction of breakthrough lifesaving equipment over a year ahead of CAA proposed action A10 (CAP1145) – a real milestone for safety in the North Sea. Additionally, the new equipment comes with a significantly improved life jacket for all passengers, more good news for offshore safety.
“By adjusting the timescale for limiting helicopter seating capacity to better align with the availability of Category A Emergency Breathing Systems, the CAA has facilitated the work of the fast-approaching annual turnaround season, when safety critical maintenance is carried out during the summer months.”
Meanwhile Holyrood MPs will be given a detailed briefing on North Sea helicopter safety next week at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Oil & Gas Cross Party Group by Oil and Gas UK. Les Linklater, Step Change in Safety, and Bob Egan, Elected Safety Representative at Petrofac/Maersk, and will feed back workers’ views on helicopter safety, while Andrew Dettle, North Sea Service Manager for Airbus Helicopters, will advise on latest aircraft manufacturer updates.