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Helicopters (North Sea)

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. This is a short debate, which I intend to use to put on record the major reasons why the Department for Transport should order a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 into the offshore oil and gas helicopter transport system.

The North sea oil and gas industry is crucial to the UK economy. The industry and its supply chain claim 440,000 employees, around 30,000 of whom work offshore. Its investment this year will be in excess of £13 billion. It is an extremely important industry. Because of the hostile environment of the North sea, the only reasonable method of transport to and from offshore installations is by helicopter. Since 1976, there have been 13 helicopter-related incidents, in which 118 people have died. In addition to those, there were a further seven fatalities in an incident in Morecambe bay in 2006.

In the past four years, we have had five separate incidents. In three of those, the helicopter ditched in the North sea, thankfully without any fatalities, but on 1 April 2009, 16 people died when a Super Puma L2 aircraft crashed near Peterhead, and on 23 August this year, four people died when a Super Puma AS332 crashed off Sumburgh. In all five incidents, various models of the Super Puma aircraft were involved. That aircraft is the workhorse of the North sea industry, and it should be no surprise that those successive incidents have wrecked the morale and confidence of offshore workers and their families, as shown by a recent survey undertaken by Unite the union.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I declare an interest, in that my nephew, Alan Lawson, was involved in a helicopter crash on 18 February 2009. The helicopter landed in the North sea in the most dreadful conditions. Fortunately, all the people on the helicopter, including Alan, survived, but I want to congratulate my hon. Friend on pursuing these matters as tenaciously as he is, because I know from the sidelines of the terrible trauma that the family of that young man—my sister’s son—experienced. The matter still has not been resolved, and I want my hon. Friend to be reassured that there is great support for the marvellous work that he is doing.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those remarks—I promise I did not pay him.

There are many reasons why an inquiry is necessary, but I will focus on three principal reasons. First, the relationship between the oil industry and the helicopter industry needs to be considered in some detail. The Competition Commission carried out an inquiry into the industry in 2003 and recognised at that time:

“Oil companies are much larger and commercially stronger organisations than the helicopter operators”,


“oil companies had become more determined to force down their supply costs.”

That statement is accurate, but it is an understatement of the true position. The contracts reached by the oil industry with helicopter and other service companies are very one-sided. The contractor has obligations for a period. In the case of the helicopter operators, it is usually for five years, whereas the oil majors can change the contract terms at any time. When the oil price dips, oil companies look at their supply contracts. In the late 1990s, when the oil price was consistently low, many supply chain companies, including helicopter operators, had their contracted prices cut severely. In one helicopter company with which I had discussions, the cut was 20%. Something similar happened five or six years ago when the oil price dropped again. The practice is common in the North sea, but it is very difficult to see how a helicopter company, when its prices are cut without notice to that extent, can respond and at the same time maintain the maintenance and other costs that are crucial to the safety of the service.

I do not know whether the Civil Aviation Authority is aware of that practice. It should be, because significant cuts in income and elsewhere could severely restrict an operator’s ability to maintain safe standards. We should all know whether the CAA takes into account the huge imbalance between the oil industry client and the helicopter operators.

Given the importance of the transport industry in the North sea, it does not seem appropriate, at least to me, that the helicopter companies are treated in exactly the same way as any other supplier. The service is far too important. The huge imbalance between the oil and gas companies and the helicopter contractors should not be allowed to prejudice safety. The relationship should be subjected to the most intense scrutiny. Given the recent international agreement with Iran, a drop in the oil price is foreseeable when Iranian oil comes back into the market. It is worth emphasising that as a good example of how volatile the oil price can be.

The second issue to consider is the significant disparity in how different helicopter companies operate, particularly in how helicopters are maintained, the training of engineers and other staff and company cultures generally. I have spoken with a number of employees of different companies, and it is clear that training regimes, the number of flight hours and procedures vary considerably between companies. This is not the place to go into that in detail, but the available evidence suggests that the CAA should be taking a stricter line in its scrutiny of individual companies, their practices and their safety culture.

Is not the reason why there has to be a much more wide-ranging inquiry into helicopter safety, rather than the individual inquiries that go on when something has gone wrong, that we should look to see what is the best regime for helicopter companies to apply to both their work force and their maintenance regime?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There is a huge issue about the advice and recommendations that the regulator makes and how they are implemented.

The third area of concern also relates to the companies, and it is about how the CAA regulates the industry. Individual companies have different practices for checks and maintenance during operating hours, which are usually from 7 am to 7 pm. There should be a benchmark of best practice that is rigorously enforced.

In the past, one or more helicopter operators have attempted to develop a gold standard in safety in all aspects of the operation, but those efforts usually fail because of the fear of being undercut, or because of actually being undercut, by a competitor. I understand, however, that all three of the companies currently providing a service in the North sea are meeting to see whether they can agree on improved practices that they will all share. That is a move in the right direction, but it prompts the question why the CAA did not take the initiative a long time ago and insist on a gold standard across the board.

In the correspondence that I have had with the Department, the focus of Minister’s responses has been on the most recent incident, which was the crash of 23 August 2013. Of course, that incident prompted my involvement, but I was concerned with the whole history of transport in the North sea, and in particular the experience over the past four years. It is worth looking at some of the incidents in detail.

In 1992, a helicopter crashed in the North sea from the Cormorant Alpha platform. There were 11 fatalities. The weather conditions, the fact that it was night-time, poor visibility and so on were major contributors to the accident. As a result of that disaster, the CAA introduced operating policies to improve the management of helicopter operations in adverse weather conditions.

On 27 December 2006, an Aerospatiale SA365N helicopter crashed near the North Morecambe gas platform. The investigation found:

“The co-pilot was flying an approach to the North Morecambe platform at night, in poor weather conditions, when he lost control of the helicopter”.

The air accidents investigation branch recommended that the CAA ensure that personnel who are required to conduct weather observations from offshore installations are suitably trained, qualified and provided with equipment that can accurately measure the cloud base and visibility.

On 18 February 2009, a Eurocopter EC 225 LP Super Puma crashed into the North sea close to the ETAP—eastern trough area project—platform. Again, the major findings of the AAIB inquiry included the impact of reduced visibility in the immediate vicinity of the ETAP platform as a major contributory factor. The safety recommendation that it made to the CAA was that the guidance in the CAA’s relevant publication should be re-emphasised—I underline that—implying that it was not being followed properly in the industry.

On 23 August 2013, a helicopter crashed into the North sea off Sumburgh. We do not have the full AAIB report on the incident, but it is clear that the weather conditions and visibility were very poor. I cannot say for certain that this latest incident was linked to the others that I have mentioned. However, I and the pilots I have spoken to believe that all four incidents, from the Cormorant Alpha through to the incident this year, are linked by the impact of poor weather and visibility.

As I have mentioned, since 1992 there has been a specific recommendation drawing attention to the need for suitably trained and qualified staff, with appropriate equipment to measure the cloud base and visibility. That was repeated by the AAIB in more detail in 2006. Since 1992, there have been at least two failures and perhaps three in the implementation of that recommendation. That raises again the question of how the CAA ensures that its recommendations are being properly implemented. It does not seem that it operates with a hands-on approach.

I have deliberately focused on major areas of concern, and my approach may seem unfair, particularly to the oil industry and to the CAA. There are many positives that I could have raised in both cases, but my objective is fairly simple. The Government, in the shape of the Department for Transport, have a responsibility. There are serious issues to be addressed in the North sea transport system. They cannot be properly addressed with the piecemeal approach that is being adopted at the moment. In particular, the role of the regulator needs to be considered. The CAA should not and cannot be expected to review its own performance. The situation demands a full public inquiry.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, in a recent press interview, said that the Government’s approach would be faster and better, particularly for the families of victims. I do not think that the families of the victims of the 2009 crash, who have waited nearly five years for their fatal accident inquiry, would agree. The Secretary of State also said that a public inquiry would be too expensive. The Piper Alpha inquiry looked into the whole safety regime on offshore installations and produced a comprehensive report that is now the benchmark for safety in the oil and gas industry around the world. The value of that is incalculable.

I asked the Department of Energy and Climate Change what the Piper Alpha inquiry cost. To say the least, I was a little disappointed in the reply:

“The Department has checked internal records and with The National Archives, but we have been unable to locate any documents relating to the cost of the inquiry.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 14W.]

That came as a bit of a surprise to me, because it was a very high-profile inquiry.

However, I did manage to dig out, again with the help of the Library, a question asked by the late Donald Dewar of the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). According to the answer, the cost of the inquiry was estimated to be—this was before the inquiry had completely finished—about £3 million. That is fairly cheap, given the scope and length of the inquiry. The Library tells me that in today’s money it is about £5.7 million. I checked the cost of a Super Puma helicopter, which I thought would be of some interest. It is $18 million, which is roughly £11 million, so for the price of one Super Puma, we could have two Cullen inquiries.

I understand why Ministers may have some inhibitions about the costs of a public inquiry, particularly in these austere times, but also because one or two have swallowed up a lot of public money. However, the issues in this case are fairly straightforward and focused. I would expect the inquiry to be shorter than the Piper Alpha one and, in relative terms, cheaper.

A number of inquiries have been set up, including one by the CAA working with the Norwegian CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency. There is also the likely oil industry independent inquiry. The fatal accident inquiry into the 2009 crash, which I have mentioned, is due to commence on 6 January next year. I repeat: it is a disgrace that the families have had to wait for nearly five years for that. At some future date, an August 2013 fatal accident inquiry will be required, and of course the Select Committee on Transport has announced an inquiry.

Although I am sure that each of those inquiries will be useful, they are not the inquiry that is necessary. I strongly believe that what the industry needs is a full inquiry into every aspect of the offshore transport industry, similar to the Piper Alpha inquiry. I believe that nothing else will restore the confidence of the work force, root out the problems in the industry and provide us with the essential blueprint to operate offshore helicopter transport safely in the future.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) for securing this debate on helicopter transport over the North sea. That gave me the opportunity to be briefed by my officials, and his speech contained information that I also found very useful in understanding the situation. I have also read his letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, which was a comprehensive outline of the position that he takes.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are approximately 57,000 individuals in the North sea, working across 600 facilities. The only viable means of transferring workers in the North sea industry from shore to installation and from one installation to another is by helicopter. I have travelled myself in a helicopter from Aberdeen to the Captain field and also made the short and rather precarious jump from the production platform to the tanker where oil was being pumped. Having gone through the safety drill that one has to go through before travelling on a helicopter, I was all too aware myself of the dangers that helicopter flights in the North sea can, sadly, present at times. I also understand the strategic importance of maintaining links to the North sea oil industry and, during the recent unfortunate problems at Grangemouth, the Department was keen to ensure that sufficient oil supplies—four tankers a day—would be available to ensure that those flights could continue to service the industry.

There are approximately 100 flights a day operating in one of the most hostile environments in the UK, and I recognise that there have been a number of helicopter incidents in the past five years, which have caused unacceptable and tragic fatalities and provoked great apprehension about the safety of helicopter operations among the work force.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer my own condolences to the families who suffered such a tragic loss in the recent accident involving a Super Puma helicopter off Sumburgh airport in the Shetland Islands on 23 August 2013.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot say much about that specific accident, as the AAIB investigation is ongoing. However, the AAIB, in its special bulletin published on 5 September 2013, provided initial information on the circumstances of the accident. That bulletin provides an update on the significant investigation findings to date. My understanding of that report is that a detailed examination of the wreckage and analysis of the recorded data has been carried out and has not found any evidence of a technical fault that could have caused the accident, although some work remains to be completed. The ongoing AAIB investigation will focus on the operational aspects of the flight—specifically on the effectiveness of pilot monitoring of instruments during the approach, operational procedures and the training of flight crews.

In the circumstances, Super Puma operations were grounded until further information was available. However, based on the evidence from the AAIB investigation that there was no reason to believe that the accident was caused by airworthiness or technical failure of the Super Puma helicopter, the CAA endorsed the decision taken by the operators to resume flights. The CAA would not have allowed the helicopter to resume services if it was not completely satisfied that to do so was safe, and I understand that the pilots’ union advised that their members would not be flying the helicopters unless they were equally confident that it was safe to do so.

As the hon. Gentleman makes clear, however, we are concerned not simply about a single accident but about the number of accidents that have occurred over a relatively short period. I support the fact that the CAA is conducting a review that will rigorously examine the risks and hazards of operating in the North sea and consider how those risks can be managed most effectively. The review covers all the main areas of safety, and it takes a close look at the operators, protection for passengers and pilots, helicopter airworthiness, regulation and pilot training. I promise to study it when it is published.

The CAA is undertaking that review jointly with the Norwegian CAA so that a direct comparison can be made between experiences and approaches to safety in the two countries, to see whether any lessons can be learned. The UK and Norway both operate within the wider rules set by Europe, however, so the regulatory framework is the same for both countries.

It will be no surprise that the European Aviation Safety Agency is contributing to the work, which will be advised and challenged by a panel of independent experts. The CAA has held a workshop with the Norwegian CAA and the EASA as part of the review to examine the risks and issues identified, to share information on differences between UK and Norwegian operations and to discuss initial recommendations. The CAA is still waiting for information from the Norwegian authorities before it conducts its deliberations on those aspects of the review.

I acknowledge everything the Minister is saying, but the point I was making about the CAA inquiry is that the regulator cannot examine itself, and it should not be required to. Another type of inquiry is needed. I have raised a number of questions about the CAA’s operation in the North sea, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

As a former member of the Transport Committee, I visited the CAA with Gwyneth Dunwoody, who did not take any hostages when it came to examining the organisation. I am confident that the CAA is the gold standard of aviation authorities, and it is well respected internationally. I have no doubts about the integrity and the safety culture that permeates the CAA. I will be visiting it very soon, and I will ensure that I raise the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

By all means; I am happy to do so. It is reassuring to note that the review will not only study current operations, but look at previous incidents and accidents and offshore helicopter flying in other countries to make recommendations aimed at improving the safety of offshore flying.

The hon. Gentleman raised the shocking number of deaths, of which there have been 118 since 1976. Although I have not had the opportunity to review all those accidents, I can tell him that in the five most recent incidents, two of which involved fatalities, there was no common factor that would tend to affect all such incidents. No picture is emerging of a particular problem that must be addressed.

I note the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the 2009 case, which sadly resulted in 16 deaths. A fatal accident inquiry will commence on 14 January, and I understand the distress that the delay in holding it has caused the families. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that one of the reasons why the inquiry could not take place sooner was that there was, at one point, a prospect of possible legal action in connection with the case. I understand the distress that that has caused the families, however, and I hope that when the inquiry has concluded and presented its findings, they will obtain better closure.

I also note the point that the hon. Gentleman made about cloud-based and meteorological information, and I will raise that with officials to see whether anything can be done to address it, and how big a factor it might have been in any of the accidents.

I have been listening carefully to the Minister’s contribution, and it strikes me that one of the most powerful points made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) was that weather might well be a factor. The Minister said that there were no common factors in the most recent incidents, but surely that would be the purpose of an overarching inquiry.

I understand the point that the hon. Lady makes. However, gearboxes in helicopters are notoriously problematic if they are not properly maintained. My point is that other factors, which may or may not include pilot error, can contribute to accidents. I am pleased that the inquiry will at least determine the cause of the accident, which resulted in so many fatalities.

I agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeen North that the Piper Alpha inquiry revolutionised the safety culture in the North sea. It reminded me of the maxim often heard in industry, “If you think health and safety is expensive, try having an accident”. The health and safety of those operating in such a hazardous environment must be paramount.

It is clear that any accident is one too many, and there will always be lessons that must be learned when such accidents happen. To date, the UK has played a leading role in introducing a number of significant safety improvements in North sea operations. Electronic monitoring on board helicopters provides an early warning of any developing technical issues, and there has been significant research and development of helideck lighting to assist helicopter pilots when landing.

Satellite-guided approaches for landing and other operational improvements are under development. The CAA plans to publish its findings in early 2014, so the hon. Gentleman will understand why I do not support his call for a Cullen-style public inquiry at this stage. The Government think that it would be premature to call for a public inquiry before the AAIB investigation and the CAA review are concluded.