Right of reply? Unite show how not to do it

Right of reply? Unite show how not to do it

by Brian Monteith
article from Wednesday 18, April, 2018

IT'S THE STUC conference this week at Aviemore and Unite has used the event to make yet another attack on the return of the Super Puma to service in the North Sea. Once more a slanted picture is presented by the union, one that is clearly designed to try and put its own interests of expanding its representation first, under the cover of campaigning for safety in the North Sea. If it was genuinely concerned about safety it would be raising concerns about the Sikorsky S92 – but it only ever mentions the Super Puma so that the oil and gas industry is inconvenienced but does not face a full out grounding of all helicopter flights.

I recently wrote an article in Energy Voice that revealed the double standards and hypocrisy of Unite regarding helicopter safety, only to be subjected to the passive aggression of name-calling that is so typical of Unite. One of its officials, Tommy Campbell, said I should be ashamed for suggesting the Super Puma should fly in the North Sea skies once more. But I have nothing to apologise for and certainly feel no shame or guilt in discussing an aircraft involved in a great loss of life. To avoid doing so is to run away from the truth and put the safety of North Sea workers in peril. I have written about the helicopter safety issue many times, my commentary in Energy Voice being at least the sixth. On each occasion I have pointed out the fatalities in the Super Puma crashes and described them solemnly as the tragedy they are. 

Saying the Super Puma should never fly in the North Sea again is, however, beyond reason. It is like saying the UK should never build apartment blocks because of the Grenfell Tower disaster when we already know that apartment blocks can be safe if they have sprinklers and cladding is non-combustible. Should the de Havilland Comet never have flown again to become the great aviation success because of its initial metal fatigue that killed hundreds? Once the fault was identified the metal fatigue was engineered out and aviation learned from the errors to make jet travel a success. Each loss of life was a personal and family tragedy but only by examining what can be done cane we advance and avoid repeating errors.

The facts are simple: equipment failures in both the Super Puma (in the North Sea) and Sikorsky S92 (in Canada) have caused fatal accidents over recent years; both aircraft have had new parts and new servicing procedures enforced that make them now far safer – both safe enough to be given airworthiness certificates; yet only the Sikorsky S92 flies currently in the North Sea while the Super Puma flies everywhere else in the world but the North Sea.

Given that the Super Puma’s two recent fatal accidents have only been in the North Sea and the recent near-fatal accident of the Sikorsky S92 on the West Franklin Platform was partly attributed to poor servicing procedures, there is a legitimate question to be answered about maintenance standards on UK and Norwegian waters.  Simply banning one aircraft and not another makes no sense and risks putting workers’ lives at risk by not addressing the problem of meeting high maintenance standards for all aircraft.

I see nothing shameful in pointing this out.

What Unite has not commented about or mentioned to its members is that on 12 March 2009 a Sikorsky S92 bound for the Hibernia Platform in Newfoundland ditched with the loss of seventeen passengers and crew. I find Unite's silence on this accident shameful. The cause was attributed to complete loss of oil pressure in the gearbox due to a faulty part, with other consequential problems then occurring. Sikorsky replaced the part and on 18 May the S92 was able to fly again – after having been grounded for sixty-seven days. 

Were the Sikorsky S92 to have a fatal accident anywhere now and be grounded, the ferrying of workers to North Sea platforms would be all but impossible unless the Super Puma is available. 

Instead of answering these points Tommy Campbell chose to marginalise me by stating I was a “Tory MSP” – when anyone with any knowledge of Scottish politics knows I left that party thirteen years ago and retired from the Scottish Parliament eleven years ago. He also claimed I criticised North Sea workers, but there is no criticism direct or implied in anything I have written.

Tommy Campbell then misquoted an Airbus survey saying 62 per cent of North Sea workers said they “would not want to use the Super Puma, ever” when in fact they said they were “uncomfortable and unlikely” to use it again. That’s a significant difference in tone and fact. Given the same survey also revealed that 44 per cent were unaware of the safety improvements Airbus had made it is reasonable to expect that the 38 per cent that said they would fly in a Super Puma might become the majority were they made aware of those changes and given fresh confidence.

I have followed the helicopter issue very carefully and I have not seen anything released by RMT or other unions, or by Labour MSP Lewis MacDonald, that agrees with Unite’s extreme position of making the North Sea a Super Puma free zone. In all of its statements Unite never once mentions the improvements that Airbus has made to the Super Puma, nor does it mention the counterbalancing problems encountered by the Sikorsky S92 that have also included fatalities. 

If Tommy Campbell’s emotions allow him and Unite to be so loose with the facts I dread to think what other errors have crept into his assessment of the problems faced by oil and gas workers.

Discussing the fatalities from accidents is vital, but to pay the bereaved proper respect it must be given context by identifying the causes of the awful deaths and correcting them. Only this way can the same tragic circumstances be avoided. 

I am happy to let readers draw their own conclusions by reading my pieces via the links provided, and remain convinced that the reasonable case is for union officials to demand better maintenance procedures while both aircraft are able to fly.


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