Offshore helicopter safety - Transport Committee Contents

5  Commercial pressure

49. The extent to which oil and gas companies influence safety standards is fiercely contested. BALPA stated that oil and gas companies enforce cost-cutting in the helicopter operator market by structuring contracts to include a 90-day notice period for termination of contract. However, the contracted operator is normally tied to the contract for a period of years. That allows oil and gas companies to threaten operators with market-testing exercises and to pull out of the contract at short notice, if their market testing finds another operator to undercut the price. Secondly, BALPA contended that oil and gas companies artificially distort competition in the operator market by providing financial backing to new entrants, which forces existing operators to cut costs to compete.[77]

50. Oil & Gas UK flatly rejected BALPA's observations.[78] Helicopter operators argued that commercial pressure from their customers does not affect safety standards. Mike Imlach, Director, Bristow Helicopters stated that "I can honestly say we have never been under commercial pressure where we have felt it is unsafe to continue a flight."[79] Luke Farajallah, Managing Director, Bond Offshore Helicopters, told us that his company was adept at keeping commercial pressure away from pilots and were able to "ensure that our contractual relationships do not lend themselves to any commercial pressure".[80] The CAA review directly contradicted the arguments advanced by Oil & Gas UK and by the helicopter operators:

    All the helicopter operators reported that customer influence in operational matters was too extensive. The perception that contracts are offered at too short a timescale and awarded on lowest cost is also prevalent. The CAA considers that this may reduce a helicopter operator's capacity to recruit and train for a new commitment, and may challenge standards in the drive for a successful bid.[81]

Public inquiry

51. Trade unions have campaigned for a full public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety, which they believe is the only measure that would restore the work force's confidence in helicopter safety.[82] The RMT suggested that a public inquiry should examine:

·  Comparisons of the UK safety record and standards of helicopter companies with their counterparts in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea;

·  Trade union access to berths on helicopters;

·  The extent and effectiveness of training requirements for helicopter pilots; and

·  All operational aspects of helicopter transport, from maintenance regimes through to survivability.[83]

With the exception of the second point, the CAA review examined those issues in detail. Mark Swan of the CAA was ambivalent about a public inquiry. He stated that the CAA review was comprehensive and had not missed anything significant, although a public inquiry was for the Government to decide.[84] While we agree that the CAA review was strong, we do not accept that all the significant questions have been answered. The Aviation Minister rejected a need for a public inquiry and stated that it would delay action and have little value.[85] Robert Paterson of Oil & Gas UK told us that following the publication of the CAA review and of the AAIB investigation into the Sumburgh crash, there would be an "opportunity to look carefully at what we may need to focus a public inquiry on."[86] We reject that argument, because a public inquiry should consider the outstanding strategic issues and not replicate the AAIB investigation into the Sumburgh crash.

52. BALPA has called for a tightly focused public inquiry to consider the issues outwith the CAA review. Its proposed inquiry would examine

·  the control of the offshore helicopter industry by the oil companies who charter services from the helicopter companies; and

·  the effectiveness of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)'s regulation of the offshore helicopter industry against a background of six serious accidents in the UK offshore helicopter sector in the last seven years.[87]

53. Mark Swan acknowledged the criticism that the CAA failed to examine its own role:

There have been calls of, "Well, hang on, CAA. You haven't looked at yourself and how good you are at your job." Clearly, that is for others to remark on, not me.[88]

The CAA's role is key to offshore safety. Any review which failed to examine it cannot be considered complete. It would obviously be inappropriate for the CAA to lead on such work. The DfT and regulators have failed to ask searching questions about the wider commercial culture in the North Sea operating environment, particularly concerning the pressures on operators and their contractual obligations to customers. Only a full independent public inquiry will have the resources and powers adequately to examine those issues.

54. The CAA review did not consider the evidence that commercial pressure impacts on helicopter safety in sufficient depth. The Government must convene a full, independent public inquiry to investigate commercial pressures on helicopter safety in the North Sea operating environment. That inquiry must also examine the role and effectiveness of the CAA. In addition, the DfT must commission ongoing independent research similar to the SINTEF reports in Norway to examine improvements and threats to offshore helicopter safety. Once published, this research should be laid before Parliament for consideration.

77   BALPA (HCS0012) para 5.1 Back

78   Qq72-76 Back

79   Q21 Back

80   Q12 Back

81   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), para 13.3 Back

82   RMT (HCS0015) page 1 Back

83   RMT (HCS0015) para 1.1 Back

84   Q134 Back

85   Q156 Back

86   Q87 Back

87   BALPA (HCS0012) para 1.3 Back

88   Q134 Back

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Prepared 8 July 2014