Unite’s grandstanding and divisiveness should not be rewarded

Unite’s grandstanding and divisiveness should not be rewarded

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 23, March, 2018

THE PROBLEM with public discourse in Scotland is how so much of it is crowded-out by the two dominating spectres of Independence and Brexit. To try and have a reasonable debate, by which I mean the placing of arguments and counter-arguments in the public arena that might gain attention and generate further discussion – even bringing change – often appears nigh impossible.

Scotland’s well recorded difficulty with falling standards in its schools occasionally gets a mention, as does publication of the latest NHS performance statistics, but debate about how to remedy the problems rarely extends beyond the flurry of partisan sound-bites and grandstanding. Too often politicians and self-serving campaigners are talking to their own audiences rather than seeking common ground over issues where they might agree.

When I joined the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as one of eighteen Tories such was the optimism surrounding the opportunities that the new institution presented that with very few exceptions everyone made an effort to get along and work together irrespective of their party. Nearly twenty years later and after two highly divisive referenda – where everyone must by definition be “for” or “against” a proposition, with no room for nuance or negotiation – those that shout loudest and most divisively attract most media attention, no matter how unreasonable their words.

Scottish political life appears so more polarised, entrenched and unforgiving that it is not unusual to read, normally via social media, how participants “hate” their adversaries and offer threats rather than respect.

An example of how important issues are being sidelined, with only the most outrageous opinion often being seen as moderate and reasonable, concerns the campaign against the renewal of flights in the North Sea by the Airbus Super Puma helicopter, even though it was cleared to fly by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority last year – and despite another aircraft, the Sikorsky S92 having its own serious technical problems.

For over a decade the Super Puma was the workhorse of the North Sea in taking employees back and forward to rigs. An accident in 2009, where a Super Puma 332 L2 crashed off Peterhead, killing all sixteen passengers and crew, was traced back to a fault in the main gearbox. In 2016 a crash involving a failure of a Super Puma 225’s main gearbox off the Norway coast resulted in thirteen deaths of crew and workers. The Norwegian and UK civil aviation authorities grounded indefinitely all UK-based Super Puma 225s and 332 L2s (which share a common gearbox) while investigations were held by the Norwegian Accident and Investigation Board (AIBN).

The initial AIBN finding of metal fatigue of a part in the aircraft’s gearbox was confirmed in its interim report issued at the end of April 2017. The AIBN also reported its analysis found no material conformity issues or discrepancies in the manufacturing process and, crucially, that the Airbus servicing procedures were not at fault and could not have detected the sign of metal fatigue.

Airbus responded by introducing a number of improvements designed to address fatigue failure and provide increased reliability. These included replacement in all gearboxes of the part that failed in the Norwegian accident by a more resistant type; a significant reduction in its permitted life limit from 4,000 to 1,000 flight hours; and introducing an improved anti-spalling system to detect particles in the oil, together with a strengthened inspection criteria and equipment allowing a more detailed analysis of particles.

Subsequently, both the UK and Norwegian CAAs gave the Super Puma H225 and AS332 L2s airworthiness certificates and clearance to return to passenger duties in July last year. That announcement brought them into line with other aviation boards such as European Aviation Safety Authority and the US Federal Aviation Administration who had already granted airworthiness certificates to the Super Puma.

By holding the necessary scientific and legal investigations due respect was given to the victims of the two accidents that that brought about step changes in safety procedures and aviation engineering. Their regrettable loss need not have been in vain and in less divisive times one might have reasonably expected that the aviation industry could move forward with the safer aircraft.

That expectation has not materialised. Instead one trade union, Unite, has taken an extreme position, using inflammatory language about “flying coffins” to call for the North Sea to be “Super Puma Free”. And yet worldwide 157 H225 and AS332 Super Pumas continue to fly, used by countries from France to Brazil, US to Saudi, Japan and China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel uses a Super Puma in her personal flight and fifty new Super Pumas were sold by Airbus last year. Only in the UK do 24 Super Pumas wait to re-enter passenger service despite the changes to their equipment and servicing.

Unite’s position is as unfortunate as it is isolated, with other Norwegian and British unions, such as RMT, accepting the civil aviation authorities should determine airworthiness and safety – not a union official.  With less than 10% of the offshore workforce unionised Unite is putting the jobs of other union members and the other 90% of workers at risk by seeking to block use of the Super Puma. The attitude of Unite is at odds with creating and sustaining jobs for its members. While safety must be paramount, the aircraft has now been cleared for flight, by the experts in aviation safety.

Unite’s campaign against the Super Puma looks especially partisan compared to its treatment of the only available alternative helicopter of adequate size, the Sikorsky S92, which has not been without its problems. Yesterday a UK Aircraft Accident Report was published on the loss of control by an S92 when approaching a North Sea oilrig on 28 December 2016. It was able to make a hard landing, fortunately without casualties. The report found fault with the aircraft; a failure in its tail rotor pitch servo bearing caused the complete failure of its yaw control while in the air. Even after landing it spun a full 180 degrees to the edge of the helipad.

Like Airbus with its Super Pumas, Sikorsky has now made design changes and it is continues to fly. If the precautionary principle was to be followed both aircraft would not be flying, but they both have airworthiness certificates so why should Unite choose one aircraft over the other after the S92’s accident? Is Unite trying to flex its muscles in an attempt to appear powerful and thus attract members?

Over the last two years the S92 has had to take the burden of all passenger transport flights to North Sea rigs. Were it to suffer a further accident and be grounded there would be no other aircraft able to carry out the vital task of ferrying employees to the platforms. Transporting workers to platforms would become a costly and unsafe logistical nightmare, no doubt hitting oil production.

Notably the Super Puma pilots, who fly in the aircraft more often than anyone, wish to take to the air. Everyone – the crews, passengers, operators, and employers are now being held to ransom by one union as if it knows better than anyone and speaks for everyone.

Instead of such an extreme position what is required is measured reasoning that respects the outcome of the accident investigation procedure and the judgement of the CAA.

Scotland needs more calm heads and less divisiveness if greater harmony is to have us working together rather than against each other.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org

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