The CAA – in urgent need of significant reform

by John Stewart, chair, HACAN East

8 March 2016

I like Andrew Haines, the Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).  He was brought in some years ago from outside the industry to bring fresh thinking into the organisation.

He has instilled a new openness but there is a long, long way to go.  Last December a report (commissioned by the CAA) from the consultants Helios slated the Civil Aviation The independent report slammed it over the way it had conducted the consultation about flight paths at airports across the UK. It branded the consultation as lacking transparency and criticised the CAA for being judge and jury.

Astonishingly, just 10 days before the Helios Report was published and aware of its contents, the CAA announced it would allow London City Airport to concentrate its flight paths. When I met with Andrew Haines, I asked him why they hadn’t waited until they had seen the Helios Report before deciding on the flight paths for London City and other airports. He believed they might have run into legal difficulties if they had done so.

The process leading up to the decision to allow the concentration of flight paths shows just how much the CAA needs to change.  And, if it can’t change, some of its functions need to be taken from it.

HACAN East consulted lawyers to ask whether there was any reasonable chance of challenging the CAA’s decision to allow the concentrated flight paths in court.  It seems not.  But to me this simply re-emphasises just how much the CAA needs to change the way it operates.

The CAA argued that City Airport was allowed to carry out a minimalist consultation (a technical document on its website and discussions behind closed doors at the supine consultation committee) because the change was minimal.

It argued that, because a lot of the planes already flew the proposed concentrated routes, the proposed change to concentrate the flight paths was not significant enough to require a fuller consultation.

Our lawyers say that, in law, they may be correct.  But, if this is right, it just shows how inadequate a body the CAA is to carry out this function.

What the CAA ignored:

The history of flight path changes in the affected areas.

In 2008 NATS (the air traffic controllers) carried out a consultation for flight path changes for an area known as Terminal Control North (TCN) which covers the airspace north of the Thames for Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City Airports.  The proposals caused uproar. They were dropped….except for the ones covering London City.

What NATS did not tell local residents that London City would not be able to operate the bigger planes it had started to use without the flight path changes. In other words, unlike all the other airports, NATS had no real option but to approve the City Airport changes.  This was never explained to the residents of East London. Or at least not to the few who knew the consultation was taking place. It is a strong word to use but there is no doubt in my mind these residents were deceived into believing the authorities had the option of dropping these 2008 flight path changes.

They were needed because the larger jet planes could not make the tight turn when taking off that the smaller turbo-props, which they were replacing, could do.  It meant that many areas got a lot more planes – places like Bow, parts of Leyton, Leytonstone, Wanstead, Dagenham and parts of Havering.

But then in 2014 came the hammer blow. London City said it wanted to concentrate all the take-offs on those routes. And it argued that, because the change was largely replicating what was already happening, it was only required by the CAA to carry out a minimal consultation. And the Civil Aviation Authority, which oversees these processes, approved that consultation.  And probably did so legally.

The CAA simply couldn’t – or didn’t want to – examine these changes that had happened over a period of years.  Or may its remit doesn’t cover it.  If it had examined what had take place since 2008, it would have seen that for many of the people it was asking to live under concentrated flight paths 2016, the change from the number of planes they were getting prior to the 2008 changes is potentially very significant. The fact it didn’t – or couldn’t – do that suggests its remit is simply not fit for purpose.

The combined impact of Heathrow and London City airports

Many of the people living under the new concentrated flight paths also get Heathrow aircraft.  Yet the CAA seems not to have seen it as any part of its role to even consider this.

The nature of the communities affected

The concentrated flight paths consultation, endorsed by the CAA, took the form of London City Airport putting a technical document on its website and of informing its consultative committee.  Nothing more.  No leafleting of the areas that would be affected.  And by only consulting online, City Airport effectively disenfranchised a huge number of people.  Across the UK, 21% of people can’t operate online, but amongst C2, D and E classes it is 72%; and for those in 65+ bracket it is 52% 

According to the latest Indices of Deprivation (2010), Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest are among 15 most deprived local authorities in the country. And Barking and Dagenham, Greenwich, Lewisham and Lambeth make it into the top 50.  Moreover, Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets have highest percentage of deprived people in the UK 

A good neighbour would tailor its strategy, and particularly its communications, to the needs of its communities.  In areas of real deprivation, variable online skills and limited access to technology, a good neighbour would ensure it provided plenty of leaflets and regular face-to-face meetings with the public.  It would make sure its materials were written in clear, simple language.  The CAA, in overseeing the consultation, seems to have no notion that it should be part of its responsibility.

Andrew Haines might still be able to turn the CAA round, to make it relevant to the world where people live rather than follow dated and narrow remits which have little relevance to the real world.

If the CAA is to retain its current responsibilities, it has to change.  That is the message of the Helios report.  That is the message of the disastrous and unfair City Airport consultation.

A good start – and a gesture of goodwill – would be for the CAA to promise a thorough review of the concentrated flight paths when it is obliged to look at them in a year’s time.  It should be prepared to abandon the concentration and undertake a meaningful consultation on other options.