Oil and gas industry chiefs raised major concerns last night about the impact of strict new safety rules governing North Sea helicopters.
Sector leaders, aircraft operators and trade union chiefs all expressed fears about the changes being introduced by regulators to try to prevent more crashes.
The Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) report on Thursday said that from June 1 passengers would only be able to fly if they had special emergency breathing equipment, or the helicopter had an extra flotation system.
If neither was in place by the deadline, seating on helicopters would be restricted to those next to an emergency exit.
The CAA insisted that the measures were “both realistic and achievable”.
But helicopter firms and trade unions were sceptical last night that workers could be retrained to use the new breathing equipment by June 1, or that the floats could be installed – because the technology does not yet exist.
It means the most likely result is that all passengers would have to sit next to a window, which would reduce the number who could fly, resulting in more flights.
Jake Molloy, RMT union organiser, said: “You’re not going to have the helicopter floats – it’s physically impossible – and you’re unlikely to have the breathing systems by June 1.
“So it’s almost certainly going to reduce the seating capacity.”
Asked what the consequences of cutting passenger numbers would be, Mr Molloy responded: “That’s the $64,000 question – what does it mean?
“Does it mean projects cancelled? Does it mean jobs cut? Does it mean more helicopters, more pilots, more risk?
“I’m concerned about the practical application of what they are proposing. The CAA need to come back and say what it is that they want.”
“Realistically, it is going to take a long time to implement this. The costs and training issues are a bit of an unknown,” one source said.
“The helicopter floatation technology is currently unavailable, that is my understanding. At the moment there’s no ‘category A’ breathing equipment. The technology would have to be developed.”
Another industry insider said: “You’re not going to be able to get into a helicopter if you haven’t been trained in that equipment. It’s just not going to happen because of the regulations.
“It’s not just the price of the procurement, it’s the training.
“And the other question is: how long does it take to have the helicopters fitted with side floats?”
The CAA denied that its new rules were unworkable, saying: “We set out to take safety as the first priority but we believe everything we are calling for is both realistic and achievable.”
A spokesman added: “It may mean more flights but would deliver a significant improvement in safety. So they don’t have to have floats or breathing equipment in place by June but obviously the sooner the better.
“Although side floats don’t exist yet there has been work on them for a number of years. On breathing equipment we believe a suitable system is commercially available now – they need to be tested, brought and fitted but this needn’t take a long time.”