x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Crackdown on rogue airlines begins

Federal authorities are trying to clear our skies of carriers that fail to adhere to regulations or international safety standards.

A fireman surveys the wreckage of a the cargo plane that crashed in Sharjah. The operator has since been banned from UAE airspace.
A fireman surveys the wreckage of a the cargo plane that crashed in Sharjah. The operator has since been banned from UAE airspace.

DUBAI // Following the fatal crash of a Boeing 707 in Sharjah, civil aviation authorities are clamping down in an effort to rid the country's airports of "rogue airlines". Saif al Suwaidi, the director general of the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), said efforts to rein-in foreign-owned airlines that exploited legal loopholes by "virtually" basing themselves in the UAE were yielding significant results.

Since the beginning of the year, he said, the GCAA had embarked on a campaign to severely restrict such airlines, which it was feared were deficient in their safety measures. In the next few months, he said, "you won't see such operations in the UAE". "Some of these operators are trying to register their aircraft in other countries, where maybe the oversight is not that strong, and then shift their base of operations to the UAE."

The moves come after a recent investigation by The National on Saturday found at least six operators that were banned for safety reasons in European Union airspace operating out of the UAE. Mr al Suwaidi also said suspect operators were being placed on a "watch" list. This would help form the foundation of the UAE's own blacklisting system which, when introduced, would flag operators deemed unfit to use the country's airspace.

"We are cleaning up the market for some operators who are not respecting our regulations and ICAO regulations, and who are trying to misuse our open-sky policies," he said, referring to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN body. The watch list would demand that flagged airlines meet special requirements such as extra inspections. "After that," Mr al Suwaidi said, "if they prove that they are totally complying with international standards, we shift them to a green list. If not, we keep them on the watch list".

He did not say how many airlines were placed on the list, and declined to identify their countries of registration. But operators acknowledged feeling the pressure, complaining that it had had a crippling effect on their business. "Civil aviation authority is squeezing everybody out," said a representative for an airline registered in the Kyrgyz Republic that has an office in Sharjah Airport Free Zone.

He said Sharjah's local civil aviation department had imposed harsh measures on airlines that were either registered in former Soviet countries or operated aircraft manufactured in that region. All Kyrgyz Republic carriers are blacklisted by the European Commission, the executive body of the EU. "It's nothing surprising these days; they're pushing the Russian airlines and airplanes out of here," he said. "The UAE does not want us to operate here."

The representative said dozens of companies that used Sharjah International Airport had recently been forced to relocate operating bases and maintenance hubs. "Even those who receive the permission to operate here, they are under immense pressure," he said. "Civil aviation keeps asking them to send us this document, that document, etc." Officials at Sharjah Department of Civil Aviation could not be reached for comment.

Some operators, however, complained of being unfairly singled out. Andrey Malinin, the UAE representative of Rubystar, a Belorussian transport carrier that used Fujairah International Airport, received a fax from the GCAA last Saturday telling him his operations could soon be terminated. But he said he had received permission to operate in the UAE. "In a letter in May, we received clearance to operate our two Antonov 12s in the UAE," he said. The planes, Ukrainian-made transports, were under contract to deliver food and other supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan.

The fax, signed by Ismail al Balooshi, the authority's director of aviation safety, told Mr Malinin that his company's "operation cannot be continued" unless it receives GCAA approval. "Therefore," the fax said, "you are required to present any record of approval [to operate] to this office within 48 hours. Failure to meet this requirement will result in immediate suspension of your operation in the UAE."

Mr al Balooshi could not be reached for comment on the faxes. Mr Malinin said Rubystar, based in Belorussia, maintained only a small office in Fujairah for logistics. "At present, we don't know what to do," he said. "It's still not clear what the problem is." Suspension of operations could result in his company losing its Nato contract, which would cause significant financial damage. "We're worried because we have an obligation to our broker, and our broker has an obligation to Nato," he said. "It would be difficult to lose this during the current financial crisis."

He added that he knew of at least five other operators that had received the same GCAA missive. Meanwhile, Mr al Suwaidi said Azza Transport, the operator of the Boeing cargo plane that crashed at Sharjah in October, could be subjected to additional sanctions after the discovery last month that its flight data recorders were not functioning during the incident. He said the devices were not properly maintained by the Sudanese cargo company. Consequently, authorities were unable to retrieve data considered vital for determining the cause of the crash.

Azza was suspended from flying in UAE airspace following the crash, which killed all six crew onboard. "One of [the black boxes] wasn't in good condition due to the connection; there was a problem with its connection to the system" on the aircraft, Mr al Suwaidi said. "And the other one, because it was used for a long time it was very old the condition wasn't so good." Depending on the conclusions of an official investigation, which was still ongoing, the company could be dealt further punitive measures, he said, although he did not give details.

But analysts said sanctions could result in the company being banned in other markets, such as Europe, where it can still legally operate. "Most likely," said Ronan Hubert, of the Aircraft Crashes Record Office, a Geneva-based research organisation, "if the UAE informs other regulatory authorities about this, like the Americans, Europe or in Britain, they would ask the UAE for the results of its investigation. And these authorities would tell this operator that, until the operator is found to have met minimum standards, it will be considered blacklisted."

Investigators from the US National Transportation Safety Board arrived two weeks ago to examine the wreckage of the Azza crash. "I think the inspection is going well," said Mr Suwaidi. "We will get very soon the engine results, and after that we will be approaching the end of this." hnaylor@thenational.ae