A SAFETY improvement requiring all offshore helicopter passengers to be seated beside an exit was today delayed by three months by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) after the oil and gas industry warned it could hit critical maintenance work.
The CAA extended the deadline for the change from 1 June to 1 September, which was part of one of the biggest shake-ups in UK offshore flight safety announced in February.
However, the regulator has also brought forward the compulsory use of an improved emergency breathing system from April 2016 to next January.
The CAA said the requirement for passengers to sit beside a push-out window exit to be able to escape in an emergency was an interim measure until the new breathing equipment was provided.
It said the seating change had been put back because oil and gas firms had said the cut in helicopter capacity it would cause “could have an adverse impact on safety critical maintenance work due to take place at offshore installations over the summer”.
The CAA also said the new breathing systems would not be available until mid-July.
It added that helicopter capacity would be further reduced this summer by gear shaft safety modifications on Super Puma EC225 helicopters.
CAA head of flight operations Rob Bishton said: “The safety of those who work offshore is our absolute priority and as such we must also consider their safety on offshore installations as well as onboard flights.
“We have listened carefully to the views of the industry, the unions and the helicopter operators.
“The changes to timescales we have announced today will mean that helicopter flights will only be permitted after 1 January 2015 if passengers are fitted with the improved emergency breathing equipment – that’s much earlier than originally planned.
“But we are also giving the industry an extra three months before the temporary seating restrictions are applied, so that they can complete planned, safety-critical maintenance work offshore over the summer.”
The changes are expected to cost the industry millions of pounds and lead to additional flights and the need for extra aircraft to be brought in by the big three North Sea helicopter firms.
They follow a review launched by the CAA last September after a Super Puma helicopter ditched into the sea off Shetland’s Sumburgh Head, claiming the lives of four oil rig workers.
The review, which was undertaken jointly by the Norwegian CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency, also focused on the causes of another four helicopter accidents and incidents in the North Sea over the past five years, including a fatal crash in April 2009 in which a Super Puma plummeted from the sky, killing all 16 people on board.
The Rail Maritime and Transport union, which represents offshore workers, backed the seat change delay.
Regional organiser Jake Molloy said: “Common sense has prevailed. The very real potential was there for employment to be terminated and de-manning.”
Richard Toomer, spokesman for the pilots’ union Balpa, said: “Looked at narrowly, this would seem a pragmatic solution to some timetabling difficulties.
“But Balpa members remain concerned that there remains a fundamental problem whereby commercial interests trump safety priorities.
“That is why we continue to argue for an independent judicial inquiry along the lines of that led by Lord Cullen after Piper Alpha.”