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UK General Aviation Consultation – which way now for safety and a “Just Culture”?

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By Alex Stovold


Published 15 December 2020


On 31 December 2020, as one of the direct consequences of Brexit, the UK will leave the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), as the UK’s “specialist aviation regulator”, is tasked with assisting the UK government beyond the end of the transition period “to ensure continued transport connectivity in support of successful economic and social ties, and as part of a deep and special future relationship”. As part of this endeavour, the General Aviation Unit (GAU) within the CAA recently launched a consultation, open until 18 December 2020, focused upon “opportunities after leaving EASA”. The expressed aim of the UK government is ambitious – “making the UK the best place in the world for general aviation”. Does the consultation document give any indication how this might be achieved?

There is a fundamental focus on safety – as the consultation document notes, the UK DfT review of recreational General Aviation, completed earlier in 2020, recognised that “safety is never a job done”. Adopting the ICAO definition of General Aviation (GA) the focus is upon “all civil aviation operations other than scheduled air services and non-scheduled air transport operations for remuneration or hire”. The remit of this study is wide-ranging. The CAA’s GA unit “regulates non-complex aircraft including microlights, amateur-built and historic aircraft (including ex-military), balloons, airships, paramotors, gliders, rotorcraft, piston twin and singles up to 5,700 kg MTOW and single pilot helicopters up to 3,175kg”. So the consultation and more importantly the withdrawal from EASA impacts different communities within aviation in some ways where the only unity is the things they are not!

How can you maintain or enhance safety as part of a “Post-Brexit GA Challenge”? Some might speculate that consulting on this Challenge in the month before the EASA decoupling bites is asking the question too late. However, any deal which is struck is yet to be confirmed. The reality is that GA will be regulated in the context of any Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement which is concluded with the EU, and all current EU requirements within the existing EASA regulatory framework will be retained in UK domestic regulation for up to 2 years. In other words, as the consultation document notes – “any outcomes of this Challenge requiring changes to legislation may be constrained by the short-term capacity of Government to enact those changes. 

The highlighted opportunities are for the GA sector to guide on which regulations the UK should adopt that are equivalent to existing EASA regulations, how to remove EU “Red Tape” and to look at “mitigating potential impacts that leaving EASA may pose”. The consultation document speaks of simplifying, streamlining or rationalising regulation, encouraging innovation and most importantly “encouraging and improving learning, safety and a “just” culture”.

The concept of “Just Culture” is long-standing but is reflected in EU legislation by Commission Regulation 691/2010; defined as “a culture in which front line operators or others and not punished for actions, omissions or decisions by them that are commensurate with their experience and training, but where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated”.

If you punish honest mistakes, the theory is you restrict the ability to learn from them. Safety thrives if openness leads to improvements rather than criminality. Aviation accident investigation derives its authority globally from Annex 13 to the ICAO Chicago Convention and the fundamental principle is that the sole purpose of accident investigation is to enhance safety and not to apportion blame.

The retention of the principle of a Just Culture is critical to protecting and improving the GA sector in the UK post-Brexit, and it is encouraging to see this as a central plank of the consultation document.

The ambition expressed by UK government and the CAA is impressive – “making the UK the best place in the world for general aviation”, and the consultation aims at a collaborative approach. The GAU is interested to learn of GA regulation around the world which stakeholders feel would be beneficial within the UK. They explore the possibility of a “new collaborative, diverse and inclusive ‘GA Change Panel’”. This is laudable and appears aimed at all interested parties – even those “on the ground” impacted by GA on a non-participatory basis. This perhaps reveals some of the limitations of a collaborative approach – because making the UK the best place in the world for GA will always be a subjective question.

But those subjective opinions will be critical in taking regulation, safety and enhancement of the GA environment forward in a post-Brexit Britain. It will be interesting to see the responses to the consultation when published by the CAA and most importantly the steps taken by the CAA and ultimately Government as a consequence. Accidents will not cease as a result of Brexit, and safety can only be improved through learning from all causes of an aviation accident – whether a deliberate act or an honest mistake (indeed more often than not from the latter). As UK aviation regulation looks to tread a different path to those overseen by EASA, it will be instructive to see if those changes are just cultural, or a true enhancement to the “Just Culture".