U.K. Flight Regulator Faces Brexit Test With Boeing 737 Max Approval

Britain’s aviation regulator, granted new powers in the Brexit split, faces an early test of how it uses them with the looming return of Boeing Co.’s 737 Max jetliner.

Approval of the Max to fly again after two fatal crashes provides a chance for the Civil Aviation Authority to demonstrate its independence. At the same time it highlights the challenge of carving out a role in a regulatory landscape dominated by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which backed the Max in 2020, and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, set to do so next week.

Early expectations after Britain’s 2016 vote to quit the EU were that the CAA would remain an associate member of EASA. But leaving the European Court of Justice with ultimate jurisdiction was deemed incompatible with the U.K. aim of recovering sovereign powers from the bloc. Even then, had EASA ruled on the Max before the end of the Brexit transition period on Dec. 31, the CAA would have been spared such an early test.

“From a practical standpoint the CAA’s task is unprecedented,” said Jan Walulik, who heads the Civil Aviation Laboratory at the Centre for Antitrust and Regulatory Studies, Warsaw. “Never before has a national aviation authority had to take on enhanced responsibility of such scale.”

The CAA will make an independent decision on the Max, while sticking quite closely to the looming EASA directive, with which it was involved, Assistant Director Jonathan Nicholson said.

It’s likely to follow EASA in allowing pilots to disable an erroneously activated “stick-shaker” alarm to prevent distraction, according to a person familiar with the situation who asked not to be named. The alarm shakes the control column violently in an emergency, though regulators in Europe and Canada have questioned whether it could contribute to cockpit crews’ confusion in chaotic moments.

The CAA was established in 1972 and approved aircraft over the next three decades before EASA took over in 2004. The last model signed off was Boeing’s 777-300ER, though EASA issued the final type certificate.

Disruption from the coronavirus pandemic has eased timing pressure tied to the CAA decision on the Max, with TUI AG, the only airline with jets registered in the U.K., having halted holiday flights from the country until mid-February at least. Ryanair Holdings Plc, whose biggest base is at London Stansted, will operate the plane but is awaiting approval of a modified model.

The CAA has hired 47 new staff to cope with its expanded responsibilities. U.K. trade group ADS estimates that it will take a decade and up to 40 million pounds ($55 million) annually for the regulator to get up to speed with EASA, compared with a prior contribution of no more than 4 million pounds a year.

“It’s not just the authority to carry out a task, it’s do you have the right people to do it, and is what you do recognized as sufficient or appropriate by other authorities,” said Dai Whittingham, an ex-Royal Air Force pilot who heads the UK Flight Safety Committee, which aims to make commercial flights safer.

As part of the Brexit deal, Britain and the EU agreed that an aviation-safety committee should be set up to facilitate cooperation in areas including airworthiness certificates, though this can only happen when either side accepts the standards and procedures of the other.

Speaking in an online event with reporters on Wednesday, EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said the two agencies have maintained a “very cordial” relationship. “We need to see in practice how it works,” he said.

An unprecedented shift to new technologies in the aviation industry over the next decade may provide the CAA with an opportunity to carve out a niche, with electric and hybrid planes, pilotless air taxis and vertical takeoff craft — some operating within cities rather than traditional airspace — in development.

Whittingham said Britain could choose to allow operations that might be tougher for EASA to approve on a Europe-wide basis.

Neil Cloughley, founder of Duxford, England-based Faradair Aerospace, which aims to build and operate a hybrid utility aircraft, said the U.K. could become a “torchbearer” on the regulation of future craft where the FAA and EASA haven’t finalized their positions. It’ll first need to get the basics right first, he said.

“If we don’t make sure we’re in a solid position internationally on this we’ll be left behind,” Cloughley said in an interview. That could force British manufacturers to consider setting up overseas arms and seeking certification abroad, he said.

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