Cost-cutting and an overstretched workforce at the Civil Aviation Authority have increased the risk of air accidents in Britain, according to a leaked internal report drafted by the air safety regulator but never released.
Inspectors at the CAA, which oversees flight safety, warned bosses that they did not have the resources to do their job properly, the draft report shows.
There were “significant weaknesses” in the CAA’s safety division, including the monitoring of flight training and the licensing of pilots, the report said.
The provisional report – produced by the CAA’s head of strategy and safety assurance at the request of senior directors but never published – warned that the problems it identified were “those most likely to feature as contributory causal factors in aircraft accidents”.
A staff survey detailed within the report showed that fewer than 10% of employees believed their colleagues had time to undertake important safety activities to an acceptable standard.
Fewer than 20% of staff agreed that all of the organisation’s important safety functions were adequately covered and that activities were “sufficient to assure ourselves that we are protecting the safety of the public”.
Damning findings in the safety assurance review included:
• A large number of licences issued to pilots contained errors.
• The CAA was failing to properly oversee flight training organisations.
• “Significant staff reductions … have led in some cases to insufficient access to expertise.”
• Important safety activities required by the European Aviation Safety Agency (the EU regulator) were “significantly behind schedule”.
• The CAA’s “capability does not match the true demands”.
The review and survey was proposed by the CAA’s safety action group and commissioned by safety director Mark Swan, amid a shakeup of the CAA.
The group proposed the review “to ensure that the organisation continued to be fit for purpose to deliver effective safety oversight”.
While the review rated the overall fitness for purpose of the safety division as “adequate”, it found that “in all areas reviewed, there is evidence that the resources available … are at minimum levels. There is a general lack of resilience.”
It added: “The areas that appear to be currently suffering the most are those most critical to protect public safety.”
Questions had been raised about the CAA regime by accident investigators in the wake of the Shoreham airshow crash in August 2015, in which 11 people were killed after a plane crashed while attempting a stunt.
The official report by the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) revealed that the CAA had inspected just 2.8% of the airshows it approved in 2014, and did not require to see or approve risk assessments before permitting the Shoreham show to go ahead.
Grant Shapps, at the time a minister without portfolio, had demanded the “minimum necessary burden” for private flying in a so-called red-tape challengeto the CAA in 2013.
The chief executive of the CAA, Andrew Haines, was appointed in 2009 with a brief to modernise the agency, and was incentivised to complete a transformation programme that saw the wage bill slashed.
The regulator is funded by the airlines and operators it regulates, which have lobbied to lower the charges. The CAA pledged to freeze all its fees and charges, the source of its revenues, for three years in 2011 and by 2013 said it would be saving the equivalent of 120 full-time jobs.
The union representing safety inspectors said a significant number of its members had left the CAA.
Steve Jary, national secretary, aviation, at Prospect, said: “Put simply, they are no longer confident that they can do their job – keeping the public safe. But they can’t speak out: about 30 have left with confidentiality agreements in their exit packages.”
A spokesperson for the CAA said: “The UK has one of the best air safety records in the world, and the CAA is recognised as one of the world’s leading aviation regulators.
“We are subject to rigorous independent safety audits by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
“Their audits show the CAA is consistently performing to a very high standard, in compliance with our regulatory duties, and often provides best practice guidance for Europe and other parts of the world – helping to protect UK citizens wherever they are travelling.
“In addition, we assess our own performance. The 2014 safety assurance review was commissioned to ensure our regulatory oversight was responding to both current and emerging safety risks. The results helped to inform changes in how we organise our work and how we communicate within the organisation.
“We have consistently protected frontline safety roles at a time when other parts of the public sector have had to undertake drastic cuts.”