On February 1st 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority responded to the Shorehem airshow crash by proposing a new fee structure that threatens the very existence of the UK airshow scene. The regulations, if implemented, will increase the fees required to hold a major airshow by up to £18,000, and have already led to the cancellation of three UK airshows before they have even been adopted: less than two weeks after the proposals were announced, the organisers of the Sywell, Llandudno and Manchester airshows all cancelled their plans to host airshows this year.
In the wake of the Shoreham disaster, it has been mentioned many times that a member of the public has not been killed in a UK airshow crash since 1952. There are many much-quoted statistics about how nearly one in ten Britons attend an airshow each year, making it our second most popular outdoor activity after football, while simultaneously generating thousands of millions for the economy. Indeed, we at TIF were quick to make our opinions known in our article “why are airshows important?” – our most popular post of 2015.
But that aside, what damage can the CAA’s new regulations really do? And why have they been proposed in the first place?
The CAA’s rationale seems, on the surface, to be simple enough: in order to keep people happy, the CAA would need to tighten their regulations and restrictions, that means more work, and more work means more expenses. During the BADA’s conference on February 11th, the CAA issued a statement which read: “the charges represent the increased costs of implementing additional safety activities outlined in the recent air display action report. Safety is our first priority and we believe these additional measures are necessary to further improve the safety of air displays. … We are not funded by the tax-payer and are required by law to recover our costs from the aviation industry”.
A small increase in fees may, therefore, seem reasonable, but the changes suggested are almost mind-blowing: events are grouped by the number of displays, with prices increasing exponentially with each band (see full proposals). The flying display charge itself has increased dramatically (up from £2695 to £5390 for the highest band), but a new cost, the innocently-named “Post-Event Charge” is the largest obstacle: a very significant £15,000 for the largest shows (31 aircraft or more). This works out as less than £0.15 extra per person for large ticketed events like RIAT and Farnborough, but charity events and free airshows such as Bournemouth and Eastbourne will struggle to cope with the increased fees. Indeed, Llandudno, Sywell and Manchester have cancelled for precisely this reason, and more will follow, with the proposals likely coming into effect this April.
Airshow pilot Lauren Richardson told us that after the BADA conference, the CAA “couldn’t justify” the costs. Before the conference, she had also told us that she believed the costs would have a negative impact on safety: “Increasing costs in such a dramatic fashion is not an action that will improve airshow safety, quite the opposite; performers like myself are being stung hard on private show fees and discouraged from upgrading or changing our display authorisations. Many airshows themselves with the proposed massively increased fees will either not go ahead or be forced to increase their ticket prices which will in turn discourage attendance and/or encourage more people to spectate from outside of controlled show areas – exactly what they should be trying to reduce”.
Justyn Gorman, another solo display pilot, echoed Lauren’s words: “the additional fees themselves are arguably detrimental and ineffective to increasing air show safety (please explain to me how doubling the fees will make things safer)?” Justyn argues that the existing CAP403 safety regulations could be amended and improved, but these proposals are not what is required. “Somebody with very little knowledge of airshow flying, or maybe even aviation itself, judging by what I am reading, has decided to take CAP403 and change it because that was what they were directed to do! Changes need to be made because it is about being seen to make changes. Will the new regulations and increased fees prevent another Shoreham? Well we all await the official findings, but I can say already in my opinion probably not!”
It’s not just the CAA’s new fees that will affect the airshow industry: combined with post-Shoreham insurance premiums, many performers may be unable to continue. “I am currently pausing and not making any firm decisions whilst I am unsure of the current situation or can clearly see the way ahead, but it is looking increasingly likely that I will be forced to hang up my flying suit”, Justyn wrote.
This sentiment was matched by the rest of the display pilots we spoke to, including Peter Wells of the Twister Duo, who said that the fee increase was “crazy” and added that they “might well increase risks to pilots”. Guy Westgate of AeroSparx said: “from my perspective, their increased fees are unjustifiable and enhanced FDD role will be ineffective. Much of the new actions to be implemented by the CAA will increase our costs and hassle. It is also very hard to find anything in the new raft of extra restrictions and procedures that would have prevented the Shoreham tragedy”.
We have already seen the proposals take their first victims, and other airshows and display teams may soon follow suit. The newly-formed Gazelle Display Team, who are performing for the first time this year, told us that they “hope this [the costs] does not put flying at displays out of our 2016 budget”. Interestingly, the airshow organisers we contacted gave mixed feedback: spokespeople for the Wales National Airshow, Bournemouth Air Festival and Dunsfold Wings and Wheels told us that they would continue to work closely with the CAA and will fully comply with their regulations, while remaining positive about the prospects of holding an airshow in 2016. The sole organiser to vent his frustration at the CAA was Senior Organiser of the Herne Bay airshow, Gerald McCarthy. He told us that “our airshow is a community effort involving schools, local businesses, and other voluntary groups, and increases in fees obviously make life much more difficult for us in terms of fundraising, particularly as this is a free airshow. If, like many, our event was a ticketed affair I suspect much of these costs could be absorbed, sadly this is not the case with our event. Though I expect these organisers [of ticketed airshows] will be equally against such an increase”. Currently, the Bay Promo Team expect to hold an airshow at Herne Bay this year subject to confirmation of the Red Arrows.
The CAA seem determined that their proposals come into effect, but change may be possible: it has been suggested that the fees could be introduced incrementally over 3-4 years, which Lauren Richardson describes as “infinitely preferable”. “If it were brought in in stages shows would be able to prepare and budget for it”, she explained
Despite this, there is still an overwhelming sense of negativity towards the proposals and the damaging effects they could have on the airshow industry. “My thoughts are [that] they are using last year’s disaster to try and vastly reduce the number of airshows by pricing them out of the market”, wrote Peter Wells. This sentiment is shared by Lauren Richardson, who said: “We should be fighting to encourage the scene to flourish, to inspire more youngsters and bring more joy to people’s lives, keeping our heritage and history alive, not stifling it to death under the weight of ludicrous and unnecessary charges. … This action by the CAA will be nothing short of a death sentence for out wonderful, vibrant airshow scene”.
How can you help?
There are three ways in which you can help fight the CAA’s proposals and save our airshow industry: firstly, a UK government petition calling for the CAA to “re-think” their plans can be signed here. At the time of writing, over 12,000 people have signed the petition, enough to gain a response from the government, but a tiny fraction of the many millions who enjoy the UK’s airshows each year. Several authoritative figures have also urged their followers to write to their MPs, and templates for letters can be found at various online sources.
But Lauren Richardson believes that the best way to combat the change is to respond to the CAA’s consultation. The CAA must read every response they receive – but please remember to keep them civil and back up your comments with the facts.
Currently, the UK has the most varied, vibrant and international airshow scene in the world, and is second only to the much larger United States in terms of the number of shows. In the last five years, over 30 countries have contributed to our flying displays, and over 500 safe and enjoyable airshows have been run. To see this great British tradition come to an end would be a tragedy for the industry, the economy and the 6 million people who enjoy the UK’s airshows every single year.
Adam Landau is a Singapore-based student and aviation journalist from the UK. He is also the founder and editor of This is Flight.