Offshore Helicopter Safety — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 6th February 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 2:30 pm, 6th February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered offshore helicopter safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. As many of us are aware, the oil and gas industry remains very significant to our economy. Tens of millions of barrels are produced every year and hundreds of billions of pounds have found their way to the public purse in taxes over the years. The industry employs huge numbers of people, and I think we can be proud of what has been achieved, although many of us would have preferred to see Governments through the ’80s create some form of sovereign wealth fund to support our country in the leaner years, rather than squandering much of that money on tax cuts for the rich.

I am here to make the case for an independent public inquiry into the discredited offshore helicopter system and for much-needed reforms to the regulatory framework. Helicopter transport is the lifeblood of the offshore oil and gas industry, transporting some 50,000 workers to their workplace. The remoteness and number of North sea installations make helicopters the only viable mode of transport. Some of the issues I will raise about the maximising economic recovery policy and about commerciality might have been more appropriately addressed to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I trust that if the Minister cannot address them today, he will work with fellow Ministers to do so in writing.

It is important to recall the tragic statistics of recent times. Thirty-three offshore workers and helicopter crew have died as a result of accidents across the North sea in the past 10 years, and 65 workers and crew have been rescued in that time. In the UK sector, there have been five helicopter accidents, two of which were fatal, taking the lives of 20 workers and crew. All the incidents have involved the Super Puma models H225 or AS332L2.

Three of the incidents, including the one that killed 16 workers and crew on 1 April 2009, were attributable to technical failures of the main rotor gearbox. The Super Puma fleet was grounded in October 2012 and had just returned to UK continental shelf operations when an AS332L2 ditched in the sea off Sumburgh on 23 August 2013, with the loss of four lives. A month after the August 2013 incident, the Civil Aviation Authority launched a strategic review of offshore helicopter operations, resulting in the publication of CAP 1145 on 20 February 2014. That is the regulator’s sole official response to date to the series of tragic incidents and close calls involving Super Pumas between 2009 and 2013.

Super Pumas returned in the North sea in 2015, but have been grounded since May 2016, following a fatal accident in Norway on 29 April 2016 that caused the deaths of all 13 crew and passengers on board. The helicopter involved was an H225 Super Puma. The final Accident Investigation Board Norway report in July could not establish the cause of the fatigue fracture in the gearbox-operated rotor that led to catastrophic mechanical failure, but it still managed to publish 12 recommendations. They included criticism of Airbus and the European Aviation Safety Agency for failures to act effectively on recommendations on fault detection systems from the April 2009 incident in the UK sector.

The overall impression for the North sea workforce was that once again the Super Puma had failed, with deadly consequences. The trade unions, particularly the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and Unite, sit on the committees and bodies established to promote higher safety standards in the industry, including helicopter operations. They share my concerns about this area of aviation regulation and are fully supportive of an independent public inquiry. That is not only a priority for those offshore workers on oil and gas installations that are still in production. The emergence of offshore wind as a growing element of the energy mix and the decommissioning of 1970s and 1980s-era infrastructure will require helicopter transport to deliver the workforce safely to the job and back home again for the next 10 years or more. Those workers are very much affected, too.

As an aside, I am told by the Prospect union that the withdrawal of helicopters has other impacts, with pilots and engineers losing out on personal licence payments when a helicopter is withdrawn for safety reasons. Will the Minister tell me how the pay of those workers can be protected?

We know that the manufacturer of the Super Puma, Airbus, has ceased production of the AS332L2. The Super Puma family, however, contributed to Airbus’s successful sales in 2018, with orders received for 17 Super Pumas, including the H225. Once known as the workhorse of the North sea, there is next to no prospect of it returning in either the UK or Norwegian sectors, yet that extraordinary collapse in confidence in one section of the offshore industry has merited little if any comment from the Government.

I met the Civil Aviation Authority last September and outlined my concerns regarding the Super Puma and the need for the CAA to be much clearer on its position. Due to the requirements it says it has in place, it told me that no one can see the Super Pumas re-entering service in the foreseeable future, even though the CAA had cleared them for use. What model will replace the Super Pumas and the S-92s in the long run? The Bell 525 is thought to be the only heavy model capable of operating in the North sea. Industry figures are being invited to Texas to view the new model, but it is still to be licensed for commercial sale by the Federal Aviation Agency in the United States. No other heavy model is at such an advanced stage of development. The RMT estimates that it will take nearly two years to complete, so there is no prospect of new helicopters in the North sea until late 2020.

What assessment have the Government made of the new helicopter models for the North sea market? Is there sufficient capacity in the market? Is the existing fleet in the North sea being stretched to the limit, resulting in more and more downtime, as appears to be the case? We know from worker testimonials that there are problems with resource and downtime. One group gave an example. They checked in at 6.45 am, but due to technical issues, the workers ended up spending 12 hours in the heliport. The following day, that happened again. Workers had been there for a total of 22 hours. There is a long way to go before we can reasonably expect workers to be confident in the equipment—in this case, the helicopters—that is provided for them to be able to carry out their work.

While the CAA’s CAP 1145 document improved breathing apparatus, seating configuration and window design—I believe the windows are made bigger so that people can escape more easily—the perception among many offshore workers is that CAP 1145 is too heavily weighted towards survivability in a crash, rather than crash prevention.

In correspondence with the Government on the matter, I have received a series of broad-brush replies that have done nothing to address my core concerns or those of offshore workers in my Stockton North constituency—many people in my constituency work in the North sea—and elsewhere. The Minister said in an answer to my written question on commercial pressures:

“Offshore helicopter services provide a vital link to ensure the viability of the UK’s oil and gas industry. High standards of air safety are a fundamental concern in ensuring these services are commercially viable.”