Senators want independent advice on air safety law

O’Doherty confirms writing to EU commissioner for guidance on Air Navigation and Transport Bill

Senators believe the Government should seek independent expert advice on amendments to the law that will create the State’s new air travel safety regulator.

Members of Seanad Éireann are seeking several amendments to the Air Navigation and Transport Bill, 2020, which will merge part of safety watchdog, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) with consumer rights supervisor, the Commission for Aviation Regulation, to create a new body.

According to Senator Regina O’Doherty (Fine Gael), the key amendments sought include provisions governing airline peer support schemes for pilots and aircrew and an industrywide licence holders’ forum.

The Department of Transport sought independent advice on some aspects of the Bill, but only asked the IAA, the body the legislation is meant to regulate, for guidance on the amendments sought by the Seanad.

Ms Doherty said on Tuesday that she, Senator Gerard Craughwell (Independent) and others, believe the department should seek external advice on the amendments.

She argued that EU regulations required the State to take international best practice into account.

Ms Doherty confirmed that she has written to EU transport commissioner Adina Valean to ask if the State was meeting the standards required by European regulations.

The Seanad adjourned debate on the Bill in June to allow members and the Government to seek legal advice.

When it resumed last month, Minister of State Hildedgard Naughton told the house that the Attorney General was satisfied that there was no conflict of interest or breach of trust involved in the department seeking advice from the IAA.

However, senators continued to maintain that the Government should seek independent advice. Ms Doherty pointed out that Seanad’s own standing orders allowed the house to do this.

The Government proposed allowing the amendments, but in what Ms Doherty said would be a very watered-down form.

Senators sought changes to the Bill following representations from the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association (IALPA) — part of trade union Fórsa — and individual pilots and licence holders.

Ms Doherty stressed on Tuesday that the amendment covering the peer support programme was vital. European Union Aviation Safety Agency rules have required all airlines to have these since 2015, when a Germanwings flight crashed with the loss of 150 passengers and crew.

Personal problems

It emerged afterwards that the co-pilot had been treated for suicidal tendencies and medically deemed unfit for work, but had not raised this with his employer. The programmes allow pilots to raise personal problems they may have with a trusted individual.

Irish airlines have peer support programmes, but Ms Doherty explained that the amendment was designed to ensure that these all adhered to the same standards.

“It’s very simple,” said Ms Doherty. “We want uniform peer-support programmes that pilots trust to manage issues that they may have.”

Ialpa raised this with the IAA, Ms Naughton and the Seanad, along with several other changes it believed the new law should include.

The debate has slowed the passage of the Bill. Last year, IAA chairwoman Rose Hynes told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications that the authority hoped the merger would be completed by the end of March.

Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, chief executive designate of the newly merged authority, is leaving to take up a new post with low-cost carrier Wizz Air. The IAA last week confirmed that he was departing for an opportunity in the wider European air travel industry.