Offshore helicopter safety - Transport Committee Contents


In August 2013, a helicopter crashed into the sea while on approach to Sumburgh Airport on Shetland. Four passengers were killed. That was the fifth helicopter accident since 2009 involving the transfer of oil and gas industry personnel to and from offshore installations in the North Sea.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigation into the crash uncovered a number of deeply worrying events. Specifically, the AAIB found pre-flight briefing material did not fully represent the type of Emergency Breathing System (EBS) supplied to passengers. This caused problems for some survivors of the crash who told us they decided not to use the EBS based on the safety briefing. We call for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to ensure that helicopter operators, in collaboration with the offshore work force, review all safety briefing material to guarantee that it is up to date and fit for purpose. We also call for the AAIB to keep crash survivors better informed on the progress of their investigations and, along with the CAA, to meet survivors to take on board their ideas for improving safety.

The recent accidents all involved Super Puma helicopters. We heard no conclusive evidence that Super Puma variants are less safe than other helicopters used in the UK offshore sector. We welcome the work by operators, manufacturers and industry safety groups to engage with the offshore work force to address its concerns about Super Pumas. However, we heard troubling evidence about a macho bullying culture in the oil and gas industry, including that offshore workers who were concerned about helicopter safety were told that they should leave the industry. We believe that more must be done to facilitate a culture of approachability and openness at all levels.

The Sumburgh crash prompted the CAA to launch a wide-ranging review into offshore helicopter safety. In February 2014, the CAA published its review of offshore helicopter safety, which made strong recommendations on safety governance, airworthiness and equipment. We welcome that review and congratulate the CAA on quickly establishing the Offshore Helicopter Safety Action Group to implement the CAA's findings. At the same time, we highlight areas which we believe require more work, particularly on the problems caused by the diverse customer requirements for helicopter pilots and on the impact of seating restrictions on workers and their livelihoods.

We examined whether the Norwegian safety regime offers any lessons for the UK. We found no evidence to suggest that recent accidents in the UK could not also have happened in Norway. However, the CAA review uncovered a worrying statistical trend that shows Norway reporting far more incidents which could endanger life than in the UK. We have called for the CAA to look into why this is the case and report within 12 months.

There are strong concerns from the offshore oil and gas industry that transferring more power over helicopter operations to a European level is averaging down standards. The Government must uphold and entrench the CAA's ability to act quickly and unilaterally. We are concerned that regulatory inertia on the part of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is leading to unnecessary risk for offshore workers. The Department for Transport (DfT) must push EASA to speed up its implementation times in response to safety recommendations from national investigation boards. To that end, we ask the DfT to issue a formal response to the CAA review that addresses all points relating to EASA and to ascertain what practical steps EASA is taking to speed up the implementation of recommendations.

We believe that the CAA review did not look in sufficient detail at two key areas of offshore helicopter operations. The first was the impact of commercial pressure on helicopter safety. The evidence that we heard was polarised, and commercial sensitivities mean that it is difficult for most external reviews to examine the contractual obligations set by industry. The second was the role and effectiveness of the CAA itself, and we acknowledge it would not be appropriate for the CAA to lead on such work. Only a full, independent public inquiry will have the resources, remit and power adequately to tackle those issues; we recommend that the DfT convene such an inquiry. In addition, the DfT must commission ongoing independent research to examine improvements and threats to offshore helicopter safety.

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Prepared 8 July 2014