Airbus fumes over UK ban on Super Puma helicopter flights

By Cyril Altmeyer and Tim Hepher

PARIS (Reuters) – Airbus Group <AIR.PA> voiced frustration on Wednesday at a continued ban on Super Puma oil industry flights in Britain, weeks after European safety regulators cleared the helicopter to fly again.

Finance Director Harald Wilhelm questioned whether the failure to allow a resumption of most H225 flights following a fatal crash in Norway in April could reflect wider uncertainty over the future of regulation following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

“On the 225, the grounding has been lifted by EASA, not yet by the UK authorities. We work with them,” Wilhelm told analysts in a conference call.

“Frankly we have to understand why they are not following EASA: is that an anticipation of Brexit or is that due to other evolutions or influences? We need to understand that.”

Industry officials played down any political motive, but the comments illustrate the depth of uncertainty over the relative roles of regulators post-Brexit, as well as growing unease at some flagship European firms over the implications of the vote.

They also highlight the short-term pressure felt by Airbus Group and suppliers over the grounding of the helicopter, which is a workhorse for the offshore oil and gas industry but which has suffered at least four accidents, including two fatal ones.

Both Airbus Group and engine supplier Safran <SAF.PA> saw helicopter-related earnings suffer last quarter, mainly due to lower service revenues as Super Pumas remained grounded, while Airbus Helicopters is preparing to cut jobs due to weak demand.

Britain and Norway both banned commercial flights by recently built Super Pumas after April’s crash, in which the rotor blades spun off as a Super Puma was ferrying passengers from a Norwegian oil platform, killing 13 people.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) later grounded the aircraft worldwide. It lifted the ban earlier this month, after Airbus contained a potential weakness inside the gearbox.

But the bans by Britain and Norway apply to the operators, who are regulated at a national level, and remain in force.

“I think market participants can expect that if EASA lifts (the ban), then it is good enough to resume,” Wilhelm said.

Most industry observers expect EASA to keep on the costly and technical task of monitoring the airworthiness of aircraft models after Britain leaves the European Union, but so far there is little clarity over how far regulatory ties will be cut.

“We fully respect the right of the UK government to exercise their individual assessment of the H225 and we’re working with the authorities closely to also have the flight suspension there lifted as soon as possible,” an Airbus Group spokesman said.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority could not be reached for comment.

The Super Puma has come under intense media and regulatory scrutiny in the UK after a series of incidents linked to gearbox problems including a 2009 crash off Peterhead, Scotland, in which the rotor also flew off and 16 people died.

Analysts and industry executives say questions are growing over the future of at least the civil version of the Super Puma, which makes up 80 percent of the total, but Airbus says it has no plans to abandon the 18-year-old programme.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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