Opinion: Keep the North Sea Super Puma free

Unite regional officer Tommy Campbell
Unite regional officer Tommy Campbell

One of the great questions of 2017 for the trade union movement in Scotland has been “What is to become of the Super Puma 225 helicopter?” That question has been raised well beyond union circles because of Unite Scotland’s campaign against any return of the Puma to the North Sea for transferring workers from the heliports outside Aberdeen to the oil rigs. Our slogan of the year has become “No Comeback for the Super Puma. Keep the North Sea Puma Free.” So why the controversy about this aircraft?

Death is really the answer to that question. In April 2016, 13 people died after a Super Puma EC225 crashed west of the Norwegian city of Bergen. In effect operation of the Super Puma in the North Seas has been banned since then. The 2016 crash followed two crashes in 2012 in Scotland. Both crashes, which did not result in fatalities, were blamed on gear box problems. In 2009 all 14 passengers and two crew died when a Super Puma came down in the North Sea close to Peterhead. In total since the 2009 crash 33 families have lost loved ones who stepped aboard a Super Puma helicopter. Our members have made it absolutely clear that they have lost confidence in the helicopter. That confidence is not going to return – ever.

Even in-house surveys conducted by Airbus the manufacturers of the Super Puma back that up. In August 2017 Airbus published details of a workforce survey about the Super Puma. It revealed that 62% of those surveyed would not want to use the Super Puma. Ever. A further 15% said they would not be comfortable boarding one until more guarantees about safety changes had been delivered. So it is abundantly clear that even in Airbus surveys there is considerable opposition within the workforce about the Super Puma.

Unite has organised a petition opposing any return of the Super Puma and at the heliports workers have signed up in their thousands to show their opposition. We think we must be touching 10,000 signatures now. These figures, along with the Airbus Survey are significant about the feelings of those who have to get into a Super Puma to get to work.

And despite the fact that the Super Puma has been given the all-clear by the UK civil aviation authorities there is also a growing recognition among the oil and gas companies that big questions still have to be answered. Unite’s Scottish Secretary, Pat Rafferty, has written to all the oil companies in the North Sea about the Puma. One of the biggest concerns Apache told him: “We have recently commenced a contract with a helicopter company to support our operations in the North Sea until 2022. Our contracted helicopters are Sikorsky S92 and Westland AW189.”

That type of stand is being matched by other major companies. ConocoPhillips say they also are using alternatives to the H225. BP, Shell and Compass are on record as saying until the findings of the causes of the Norwegian 2016 crash are known there can be no consideration of using the Super Puma.

This unanimity of opposition seems to have even shaken Airbus. An Airbus spokesperson was recently quoted as saying: There are still some challenges Airbus Helicopters needs to overcome before the H225 is used for passenger transport in the North Sea. However, we believe in the aircraft and have implemented a set of very stringent measures which, in addition to the H225’s capabilities, provide a very capable alternative for future offshore requirements. Ultimately it is down to customers to decide which aircraft will best meet their needs, however, recent events highlight the benefit of not relying on a single type of aircraft.”

So given the past and where we are at present would you travel across the North Sea to your work in a Super Puma? Or would you be happy about a loved one doing the same?

Tommy Campbell is a trade union official with Unite Scotland