UK regulator imposes tougher safety measures on N.Sea helicopters

LONDON Thu Feb 20, 2014 10:43am EST

LONDON Feb 20 (Reuters) - Britain's aviation regulator said it would impose new measures on helicopters flying to oil and gas rigs under a plan to improve safety following several fatal crashes in recent years.

Last August four oil rig contractors were killed when a helicopter, manufactured by Airbus Helicopters, crashed in the sea off Scotland's Shetland Islands, prompting Britain's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to launch a review of helicopter operations in the North Sea.

The CAA said that from June 1 helicopter trips in the most severe sea conditions would be banned, while the number of passengers allowed on-board on all flights would be restricted until operators adopted longer term recommendations, also published in its review on Thursday.

Passengers will need either to sit next to an emergency window or each have emergency breathing equipment to help with underwater survival, pending longer term upgrades to helicopter buoyancy.

The CAA recommended that in the future helicopter operators modify their aircraft by fitting them with side floats and implementing automatic flotation equipment plus additional improvements to life rafts and jackets.

Between 1992 and 2013, there were 25 offshore helicopter accidents in Britain, the CAA said. The crash last August was the fifth incident in four years in the North Sea including one in April 2009 which killed 16 people.

"The safety of those who rely on offshore helicopter flights is our absolute priority," CAA's chairman Deirdre Hutton. "The steps we are announcing today will result in significant improvements in safety for those flying to and from offshore sites in the UK and potentially worldwide."

The CAA also said there would be changes to the way pilots are trained and proposed that an offshore oil worker organisation provide better survival know-how for those heading out to rigs on helicopters.

It said it would set up a new safety forum to ensure that the new measures were put into action.

The review was carried out jointly with the Norwegian CAA and the European Safety Agency, and was also advised by a panel of independent experts.

Two helicopter operators, CHC Helicopter and Bond Offshore Helicopters welcomed the CAA report.

"Airbus Helicopters will analyse all these recommendations and will work closely with all concerned parties to implement improvements where possible," the company said in an emailed statement.

A spokesman for the CAA said that the new restrictions on seating within a helicopter could represent a 15 percent reduction in capacity if an aircraft was full.

Asked about the expense of modifying the helicopters in line with the new recommendations, he said the CAA believed the cost was "achievable and realistic".

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