Europe’s aviation watchdog chief accused of ‘management by fear’ – POLITICO



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The European Aviation Safety Agency is supposed to be a rock-solid regulator of airlines and planemakers, but its mission risks being undermined by a toxic work culture, according to staff in the organization.

Conversations with five staff members and internal employee surveys obtained by POLITICO paint a picture of a tense relationship between Executive Director Patrick Ky, who has been in the top job since 2013, and many of the agency’s 800-strong staff.

Employees who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity said Ky has arbitrarily shifted staff between departments and does not take well to criticism or challenges to his decisions.

They described an internal culture where employees are afraid to speak up, which they worry could have detrimental long-term implications for aviation safety. That’s made worse by a growing list of responsibilities for the agency and a pressure to keep costs under control.

“It’s actually management by fear,” one current EASA employee said, describing Ky’s management style.

It all comes amid attempts to patch up relations between EASA and its U.S. counterpart, the Federal Aviation Administration, following comments made by Ky relating to the two disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX jets, in which 346 people died.

In a staff survey carried out in April, to which around half of the agency’s workforce responded, only 21 percent said the executive director shows integrity, while just 13 percent agreed he is transparent about decisions.

An earlier survey from 2019, obtained by POLITICO, found that 31 percent of staff considered it safe to “speak up and challenge the way things are done” at the agency. Only 28 percent said they had “confidence in the decisions made by the senior management.”

That lack of confidence in EASA’s director could affect the agency’s ability to carry out its functions properly.

EASA’s founding rules stipulate that its internal culture should form “the basis of a robust safety management system.” The U.N. body responsible for regulating global aviation — the International Civil Aviation Organization — asks agencies to foster a safety culture that includes things like in-house anonymous reporting so that experts can flag problems.

Staff said they worry such safety systems are being undermined as a result of the animosity between Ky and key members of the agency.

“They feel afraid to speak out, which for a safety regulator is a very big deal,” a second staffer said.

Ky told POLITICO the complaints centered on a minority of disgruntled staff and were not symptomatic of broader problems within the agency. He said he’s proud of the work being done by EASA and that there is no risk to the agency’s safety processes.

“We are in a very difficult time for aviation,” Ky said. “We need to adapt to the changing and evolving needs of industry. Change is by its nature difficult for staff, particularly due to the special circumstances of the COVID pandemic where many are working remotely and where the whole situation is causing stress for many in their personal lives as well.”

Efficiency drive

Ky has led the Cologne-based agency since 2013, following stints at the French Civil Aviation Authority, airspace manager Eurocontrol and the European Commission. He was elected for a second five-year term in 2018.

A third current EASA employee said they felt compelled to speak about the “devastation” at EASA and argued that the European Commission should act on the “culture of fear” within the agency. 

“They don’t have any concern about what’s going on,” the staff member said of the Commission. “The systemic root cause is putting too much power in one person. There’s no checks and balances. The EU needs to act here.”

But the Commission continues to back Ky, with a senior official saying the agency has the “highest possible levels of aviation safety” and “makes sure Europe is the safest aviation area in the world.”

The EU executive recently expanded the agency’s remit to cover regulation of drones, and looks set to hand it a greater role in airspace regulation. That’s on top of its core tasks around the certification of aircraft, its handling of flight crew safety rules, which is important given the 2015 Germanwings disaster, and its role issuing guidance for safe traveling during the pandemic.

That expansion has come alongside demands from EASA’s management board, which is made up of national aviation regulators, to ramp up efficiency and cut costs — something observers say is contributing to the worsening internal culture at the agency.

“The idea was that EASA would be the best of the best agencies of the Commission,” said Pekka Henttu, a former Finnish regulator who was chair of EASA’s management board overseeing Ky’s work until 2019. “He must improve continuously the efficiency of the agency … Maybe the price for that was rather high.”

According to an internal management document obtained by POLITICO, Ky has put forward a plan to increase efficiency by 20 percent up to 2023 as part of a strategy to make sure the agency’s resources are allocated properly.

Ky told POLITICO that the need to improve efficiency is related to the pandemic’s impact on the aviation industry, which is responsible for 70 percent of the regulator’s budget but which has been hammered financially by the collapse in air travel. He also said the cuts won’t mean a reduction in resources.

“Efficiency is not about cutting jobs,” said Ky. “I want to be very clear on this.  We are not planning job cuts.”

But many staff fear a drive to increase efficiency will put them under further strain, saying it could have a knock-on impact on the agency’s ability to do its job.

There is growing concern outside the agency too.

A discharge report examining the agency’s finances sent to the European Parliament in March “commends” EASA for its increased efficiency from 2019, which led to staffing cost savings of around €960,000.

The report also noted “the increasing rate of union affiliation in the agency,” and said it is “worried that this might be related to continuing social tensions.”

Ky also came under fire earlier this year for comments made in the wake of two fatal crashes involving Boeing 737 MAX jets. His suggestion that EASA could take on an enhanced role in evaluating Boeing aircraft outraged lawmakers in the United States. Usually the agency relies on work done by the U.S. FAA.

Congressmen wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg obtained by POLITICO that Ky had “groundlessly politicized aviation safety to a dangerous degree.”

A meeting convened by the Commission to smooth relations between the two authorities is on the cards this summer.

Industry ties

Some in the aviation community worry that under Ky’s leadership, the agency is aligning itself too closely to industry.

“We have seen a movement over the years in the direction of decisions from EASA’s side in order to ease the burden for the aviation industry,” said Ola Blomqvist, president of Aircraft Engineers International (AEI). His lobby group is concerned that the agency too often allows airlines to complete remote inspection rather than having an engineer on site.

“On safety-critical areas we can’t afford too much flexibility. Serious maintenance-related incidents over the years have shown the need for clarity and compliance,” said Blomqvist.

“Certain things have a level of risk that is rather low, and Patrick is exploiting this just as the FAA did with the Boeing 737 MAX,” said an EASA staffer. The FAA came under fire for “numerous systemic deficiencies” in its oversight in a Senate report on the MAX incidents.

Ky insists the agency’s safety record is strong, and there has been no watering down of standards.

EASA put changes in its procedures down to the pandemic, saying it “forced some changes in the way inspections or audits are carried out.” Those changes will be reviewed once the situation has changed sufficiently, it added.

Some lawmakers in the European Parliament are taking note of what’s happening at the agency.

“The organization has been taking on more and more functions, but with less staff,” said Irish MEP Clare Daly. “Clearly this is an impossible burden, an arrangement that cannot but have an impact — is it any wonder that staff feel under pressure and are afraid to speak up?”

Daly sits on the Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee and has a background in aviation, having previously worked at Aer Lingus.

Plans for the agency to take on further responsibilities under the Commission’s Single European Sky proposal — its long-stalled plan to redesign Europe’s air traffic control — should be put on hold while an independent investigation takes place, she said in an emailed statement.

“It is an open secret that there are considerable concerns in the aviation community about the lack of pro-action from EASA in relation to critical safety concerns brought forward by pilots or air traffic controllers,” Daly wrote, adding that she has voiced her concerns to Ky directly.

Lili Bayer contributed reporting.

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