x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A tighter watch on foreign flyers

Inspectors will put foreign aircraft operators who use the UAE's airports as a base under greater scrutiny.

A new aviation inspections team may determine whether suspect airlines should be placed on a special "watch list", which was started after last year's deadly crash in Sharjah.
A new aviation inspections team may determine whether suspect airlines should be placed on a special "watch list", which was started after last year's deadly crash in Sharjah.

DUBAI // A special inspection team will bring greater scrutiny to operators of aircraft that are registered abroad but use the country's airports as a base, federal authorities said. The team, which could have nearly 60 investigators by next year, will be an important part of the effort to raise national aviation safety standards, according to Ismail Mohammed al Balooshi, the head of safety with the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).

The announcement comes amid sweeping efforts to rid the country of foreign operators the GCAA deems to be illegally based here, using the country as a hub and basing staff and parking aircraft here. Last month, the GCAA said more than 45 foreign operators were sanctioned during 2009. In a recent investigation, The National found at least six companies banned from operating in the European Union had regularly been using UAE airports.

As part of the wider overhaul of safety standards, all operators with aircraft registered in the UAE were asked last week to inform the GCAA of any safety problems with their aircraft via a new, online form, which the authority hopes will identify any patterns of faults. The special oversight unit, expected to be introduced by the end of the year, is intended to thoroughly examine safety standards of the growing number of foreign carriers here, Mr al Balooshi said.

"It's part of a transformation of regulatory oversight, and the good thing is that we have the support of all the other airports," he said. He said the unit would be based at a centrally located facility, possibly in Sharjah. The GCAA has already begun enlarging its corps of inspectors; the aim is to expand from around a dozen employees last year to nearly five times that next year. Mr al Balooshi emphasised, however, that the unit would not take on a policing role.

"We don't want to be over-prescriptive," Mr al Balooshi said. "You don't police the industry; you guide it." The unit's activities, however, could involve hands-on examinations that were prompted by information shared by civil aviation authorities in other countries, he said. The unit may also determine whether a suspect carrier should be placed on the GCAA's "watch list", introduced following the deadly crash last October of an Azza Air Transport-owned Boeing 707 taking off from Sharjah International Airport.

The incident, which killed all six Sudanese crewmen on board, is still under investigation. However, it is unclear whether the UAE intends to accept operators that have been banned from flying in other regions in the world, such as Europe. Mr al Balooshi did not rule out allowing operators blacklisted by the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, from using the UAE's five airports. "Only adopting a blacklist is not a one-stop-shop solution, a magical remedy," he said. "What we need is something that fits the UAE market, not just the European environment."

Concerns exist within the aviation industry that operators have been registering aircraft abroad but using UAE airports as "virtual hubs", allowing them to skirt regulatory oversight and raising fears of inadequate safety standards. Only one country in the region, Bahrain, has fully adopted Europe's blacklisting system. Proposals for a foreign-carrier inspection unit also follows the introduction on January 1 of a system for operators with aircraft registered in the UAE to report safety issues with their operations.

The system, called the Reporting of Safety Incident (ROSI) programme, is intended for operators and maintenance companies to more easily volunteer to the GCAA information about safety problems. Mr al Balooshi said ROSI would allow authorities to identify safety trends and "bigger-picture issues", and encourage companies to more readily report problems. He cited an example of individual carriers experiencing the same problems with an emergency slide.

"They may not realise that they share the problem." he said. "But we as the authority can identify that they do and we can share that information with other civil-aviation regulators elsewhere in the world", such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States. Both Etihad and Emirates confirmed using ROSI. In an e-mail statement, Tim Jenkins, Emirates' senior vice president for safety, said the Dubai carrier helped with the initial testing of the system.

It was a significant improvement on the previous incarnation, he said, an entirely electronic system that saved time and will "permit a more informed regulatory authority from the standpoint of safety". Aviation safety experts called such regulatory enhancements "encouraging". John Cox, the CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation safety consultancy in the US, said he was "glad to hear that the UAE regulators are cracking down and becoming more in line" with the Air Transport Association and the FAA.

Introducing such reforms could meet resistance, he said, including complaints from some companies and local airports that have relied on business from operators that may soon be singled out by the GCAA inspection teams. Officials at airports in Sharjah and Fujairah, both of which have relied heavily on business from operators from former Soviet republics, declined to comment on the subject. Carriers that operate at these airports have recently complained that GCAA has significantly curtailed their business in the UAE.

"This is not easy an easy task, and to push through these reforms takes a willingness to accept a leadership role," Mr Cox said. "They're going to get some push-back from some operators that are trying to skirt the regulations." hnaylor@thenational.ae