Richard North, 13/03/2005  

This week, Booker returns to the bizarre story of Per Lindstrand, the world-famous Swedish balloonist whose firm based since 1978 in Oswestry, Shropshire was the world's leading manufacturer of HiFlyer "aerostats". These are tethered helium balloons that cost £500,000 each and can carry 30 passengers up to 500 ft.

That is one of the strengths of the Booker column – that we can keep coming back to the same issue, watching it develop over time and – sometimes – bringing it to a successful conclusion.

We first looked at this issue on 21 September 2003 in the column when Booker reported that as of the following week, Lindstrand’s company would be unable to sell its most successful product anywhere in the EU.

This, Booker wrote, would give its only competitor, a Franco-German firm called Aerophile, a monopoly in Europe, forcing Mr Lindstrand to lay off up to 60 per cent of his 90-strong workforce and perhaps even shut down.

Over those last 18 months, the firm has indeed lost millions of pounds, a nightmare that started on 28 September when the new European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) took over from national agencies the responsibility for all aviation safety regulation in the EU.

Under EU aircraft certification rules which came in to force at the same time, all aerostats had to be certified as "aircraft", bringing to light an extraordinary anomaly.

Previously, under UK law, the Civil Aviation Agency could only certify Mr Lindstrand's balloons as aircraft while they were free-flying, but when the same balloons were tethered they had be licensed by the Health and Safety Executive as "amusements" or "fairground rides".

By contrast, under Franco-German law, Aerophile's vehicles were certified as aircraft whether free-flying or tethered and, when Easa took over, they retained “grandfather rights” and could continue in operation.

Because Linstrand's tethered balloons had not previously been certified as aircraft, however, the manufacturing company had to make a new application to Easa – and therein lay the makings of the drama that was to follow. Easa had not devised its own set of standards, so Lindstrand was in a position of having to apply for a certification which did not exist.

What made this indefensible was that CAA officials had been aware of the legal discrepancy for four years, since Mr Lindstrand had had problems selling his HiFlyers in Germany. Yet they had never raised with Easa officials the question of what Mr Lindstrand then called "the worst injustice I have ever encountered in my 27 years as a lighter-than-air manufacturer".

And it was to get worse.

In a last-minute bid to avert a crisis, Lindstrand's MP, Owen Paterson, tabled 33 parliamentary questions to transport minister Kim Howell. But the only response from the CAA was a letter from its chairman, Sir Roy McNulty, who had wrote a chillingly bland letter to Mr Lindstrand, admitting that "as from September 28 you will no longer be able to market your aerostat".

However, McNulty did assure Lindstrand that, when the Easa dis gets round to producing its own standards, it would be easier for him to sell throughout the EU.

Booker revisited the story on 28 September of 2003, by which time he had asked the head of Easa in Brussels why Lindstrand's aerostats could not be certified as "aircraft". He had received a ludicrously patronising reply from Nick de Souza at the London press office which showed no grasp of the problem whatever. The commission clearly did not understand its own legislation.

All Lindstrand’s MP, Owen Paterson, had been able to get out of the minister was an “expression of hope” that EU certification might be ready "early in 2004".

By October, Booker was back on the case with news that Lindstrand had still been unable to gain certification for his "aerostat" balloons and, worse still, while he was unable to sell his products, his rival, Aerophile, had managed to steal a march on him and sell its product as a tourist attraction in Bristol.

Managing the certification process on behalf of Easa had been the CAA, and – after endless delays in producing a certification standard, the problem became the endless obstacles put in the way of Lindstrand’s machines, the latest then being the certification of the massive winch used to tether the balloons, made to the highest safety specifications by a Huddersfield firm.

Under EU rules, this could only be certified as safe by an "expert body", and Lindstrand’s winch was accordingly licensed by the HSE under fairground safety rules.

But the CAA was refusing to recognise the HSE as an "expert body". Instead, it was insisting on carrying out its own technical safety studies from scratch, a task for which it is unqualified, as it had no experience in this field.

At the time, though Lindstrand was stuck with the CAA. There was no way of contacting Easa directly as on its website was posted this message:

As all our ressources (sic) are presently working on on-going certification programmes, the Certification Team is currently unable to respond to all the information requests received on the general e-mail address linked to certification issues. It is hoped that this situation will soon be rectified and this general e-mail address for certification related information requests will be operational again on the web as soon as possible. Please check our web site regulary (sic) for further information.
By January, the story had taken another twist. Lindstrand had been informed that he would have a visit from officials of the CAA's Flight Test Department. But, as he pointed out in a letter to Sir Roy McNulty, "this is laughable as there is no flight test to be carried out".

His aerostats didn't even have a pilot, because they simply rose and fell on a fixed wire. What irked him even more, as he was losing hundreds of thousands of pounds a month, Sir Roy had made a speech accusing the Easa of being unable to "get their act together", because they lack sufficient technical expertise.

"In all my 28 years as a lighter-than-air manufacturer," said Lindstrand, "I have never been treated so badly". Meanwhile his rival Aerophile continued to enjoy its lucrative monopoly – thanks to the Easa – the regulations for which, as we had learnt, its managing director had been proud "to have helped develop".

And so to the present, with Lindstrand having lost millions of pounds of orders and having laid off a fifth of his 90-strong workforce – with the CAA adding insult to injury by charging more than £40,000 in regulatory costs for failing to solve the problem.

Enter Ashley Mote, elected last June as a UKIP MEP and who now sits as an independent. He was approached by a constituent Peter Smith with a similar problem. Mr Smith’s Intheairnet, a Berkshire firm supplying electronic equipment to some of the world’s most expensive private jets, faced disaster. Since the CAA handed over its certification powers to Easa, he could no longer get certification for his products without going through a ludicrously cumbersome system which involved getting separate approvals from each of his customers and disclosing all his technical secrets to firms which were his direct competitors.

Mr Smith gave Mote details of eight other specialist firms likewise facing disaster. Mote had also read of Lindstrand’s problems in the Booker column, and therefore arranged a meeting in Cologne – to which Easa had moved - with Dr Norbert Lohl, Easa’s head of certification.

On 4 March, having been presented with the horrifying story of how all these British firms were about to go out of business, Dr Lohl expressed surprise that such a problem had arisen.

He emphasised that it is now he, not ‘national authorities’ such as the CAA, who is in charge of aviation certification in the EU. He promised that Dr Lindstrand’s aerostats would be given certification without delay and that he would quickly sort out the problems affecting the other firms. He emphasised that all certification issues should now be brought straight to him, because national authorities are only there to do Easa’s bidding.

Last week, Booker got confirmation from Dr Daniel Holtgen, Easa’s head of communications, who several times stated “we are here to provide solutions”. Dr Lohl separately confirmed to Mr Mote that EASA Type Certification of Lindstrand’s aerostats valid in all EU member states had been “issued on 4 March 2005”.

Obviously for Dr Lindstrand it is the best possible news that his 18-month nightmare has come to such a miraculous end. But this weird episode leaves a trail of chilling question marks.

The CAA, writes Booker, which until September 2003 ranked as one of the most respected aviation safety regulators in the world, has been downgraded to the status of a mere branch office. Why was it allowed to charge Lindstrand more than £40,000 to achieve nothing, when its powers had all been handed over to the new EU agency?

Why did neither the CAA nor British ministers explain this, dishonestly pretending they had the power to resolve a crisis which only the handover of their powers to the EU had created in the first place?

Why do Dr Lohl and Dr Holtgen now insist that the British firms should have come to them long ago about these problems, when until January this year the Easa website asked people not to contact them because they were not yet ready for business?

It is hard, Booker concludes, not to suspect that something of a public relations operation is now being mounted to convey that, in the name of EU integration, Easa is an efficient, user-friendly organisation only “here to provide solutions”. But we must recall it is now on Easa that we rely to ensure that the EU’s aircraft do not fall out of the sky. And what a price has already been paid by countless aviation firms for the chaotic fashion in which it has been set up?

We will deal with the other Booker stories in a post later today

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