Flight risk: how does the EU Air Safety List work?

The European Union operates a list of carriers that are banned from entering European airspace due to safety deficiencies. Chris Lo finds out how the system works and what countries and airlines can do to be taken off the blacklist


n many ways, the modern world was invented in the aftermath of the Second World War. The post-war years saw states come together to establish the United Nations, setting out a framework for peaceful international relations and economic cooperation.

The same is true for international commercial aviation, the framework of which can be traced back to the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which was signed by 52 states in December 1944 and came into effect in April 1947. The convention created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as an international air travel regulator and coordinator, and set out the rights and regulations relating to airspace, aircraft registration, safety, and more.

“This landmark agreement laid the foundation for the standards and procedures for peaceful global air navigation,” the ICAO states on its website.

The internationally binding air safety standards set out by the Chicago Convention still hold sway today, enforced by the ICAO. Article 40 of the convention also gives countries the right to deny permission for aircraft to enter their airspace. “No aircraft or personnel with endorsed licenses or certificate will engage in international navigation except with the permission of the state or states whose territory is entered,” the article reads.

With hundreds of commercial airlines operating around the world, and an inevitable spectrum of safety performance across operators, many countries and regions have exercised their right to issue blanket bans against airlines that are deemed to fall short of minimum standards in air safety. In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority maintains a list of 24 countries whose airlines are banned from operating in American airspace, including Cote D’Ivoire, the Philippines, Paraguay and Ukraine.

The European Union (EU), meanwhile, operates the EU Air Safety List. This is a regularly-updated blacklist of 120 commercial airlines that are either banned or heavily restricted from entering European skies. So how does the list work, and what does it take for an airline to get its name taken off?


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EU Air Safety List: how does it work?

The EU Air Safety List has three main goals. The first and most obvious is achieving the highest possible safety standards in European skies, which represent one of the most well-regulated aviation jurisdictions in the world. The second is to provide publicly available information to Europeans so they can make informed choices about which airlines to book with when they are outside EU territory.

The third is providing a means for blacklisted countries, airlines or aviation authorities to improve their safety record and be taken off the list, or never added in the first place.

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“[The Air Safety List] helps affected countries to improve their levels of safety, in order for them to eventually be taken off the list,” the European Commission noted in a recent statement. “In addition, the EU Air Safety List has become a major preventive tool, as it motivates countries with safety problems to act upon them before a ban under the EU Air Safety List would become necessary.”

European carriers are vetted against EU safety rules, a bolstered version of international regulations, while carriers outside of the continent are checked for compliance with the international rules set out by the Chicago Convention and its annexes.

[The Air Safety List] helps affected countries to improve their levels of safety, in order for them to eventually be taken off the list

Criteria for banning airlines

If the EU or a member state receives credible evidence that an airline or national aviation authority has deficiencies in safety or oversight, an update to the blacklist will be requested and evidence on whether a country or airline should be added to the list will be studied. The list is frequently updated, with newly-compliant airlines taken off and non-compliant carriers added.

Criteria for inclusion includes documented evidence of poor results from ramp checks at European airports, the use of poorly-maintained or obsolete aircraft, and an inability of airlines and their supervisory bodies to rectify safety issues identified during inspections.

Air Koryo. Image courtesy of Kok Leng Yeo

The list is made up of two annexes: A and B. Airlines listed under Annex A of the EU Air Safety List are banned entirely from entering EU airspace, with some exceptions, including flying non-compliant planes into Europe for maintenance – possibly to resolve outstanding safety issues – with no passengers or payload, or if the banned airline is using the staff and aircraft of another airline through a so-called ‘wet-lease’ agreement. Annex B airlines may operate in European airspace under restrictions, such as only allowing particular aircraft in an airline’s fleet to operate.

There are 15 countries with all airlines banned from European entry under Annex A, including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya and the Kyrgyz Republic. Only six airlines are currently listed under Annex B restrictions: TAAG Angola Airlines; Air Service Comores; Gabon’s Afrijet Business Service and Nouvelle Air Affaires; Iran Air; and North Korea’s Air Koryo.

In terms of enforcement, in June air traffic management supervisor Eurocontrol introduced a new system to prevent unauthorised and potentially unsafe aircraft from entering European airspace. The system alerts the air traffic controllers of all member states when an aircraft without the requisite third country operator authorisation is attempting to enter the EU, making it easier to coordinate and deny access to non-compliant flights.

Criteria for inclusion includes documented evidence of poor results from ramp checks at European airports

Indonesian airlines: cleared for take-off

In line with the European Commission’s (EC) goal for the Air Safety List to act as an incentive to improve safety standards around the world, the list has been getting shorter in recent years, rather than longer. In 2012, there were 287 banned airlines on the list, while today the number stands at just 120.

One particularly large nation to be taken off the list is Indonesia. The country was subjected to a wholesale European ban of its airlines in 2007 due to “unaddressed safety concerns”. Seven individual airlines, including Garuda Indonesia, have since been removed from the list, but on 14 June this year, the EC announced that all carriers from the country had been cleared for entry “following further improvements to the aviation situation that was ascertained in the country”.

“I am particularly glad that after years of work, we are today able to clear all carriers from Indonesia,” said European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc. “It shows that hard work and close cooperation pay off.”

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Indonesia’s removal from the list follows marked improvements in safety noted by ICAO inspectors. In recent years the international regulator had scored Indonesia poorly in safety assessments, noting particular issues with regulatory oversight and aircraft inspection training. But in November last year, the ICAO raised the country’s global flight safety rank from 151st to 55th among ICAO members, with a safety compliance level of 81.15%.

The EU Air Safety List may be burdensome for airlines and countries that are denied the right to fly to and from one of the world’s foremost aviation markets, but Indonesia’s clearance is a testament to the safety improvements it incentivises, and the potential for all banned operators to raise their safety game and have their names taken off the list. Carrier bans are part of an intricate tapestry of flight safety regulations that has helped make 2017 the safest year in aviation history, with only 10 fatal accidents and none involving a passenger jet. As safety standards improve along with the oversight of aviation authorities worldwide, it’s likely that airline blacklists will grow ever-shorter in the decades to come.

Indonesia’s removal from the list follows marked improvements in safety noted by ICAO inspectors


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