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. The change, which is not due to take effect until 1 April 2015, is to ensure that everyone onboard can escape in the event of a helicopter capsizing after a ditching or water impact. The Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group has said that the introduction of the requirement will be sensibly managed and the Group’s aim is that no one loses their job as a result of the change. Exit sizes vary from one helicopter type to another – and even from one seat row to the next on some helicopters – and there are many options being explored, especially around seat allocation.