Transport Secretary Grant Shapps granted Pilot an exclusive interview at the LAA Rally in September to discuss the most pressing issues for the GA community…
Q: What is your connection to general aviation?
A: Well, besides being Transport Secretary−which obviously gives me a direct connection to GA− I’ve always been an aviation enthusiast. I obtained my pilot licence in 1995 and I have been flying for a long time. So, on a personal level, I have always been hooked. In terms of my job, though, I have always been convinced that, for the UK to lead in aviation, we need to bring the next generation into it and that we need to make it more diverse. I believe that what happens at the grassroots eventually ends up in aerospace. To me, the whole thing is an eco-system. It starts literally at the LAA level, at the microlight level, and it goes all the way through to launching spaceships.
Q: The issue you mentioned, bringing younger generations into aviation, is obviously a big problem for the whole sector, also because very few youngsters today can afford to fly. What can be done about that?
A: That’s a very important point. Making flying more accessible and affordable depends on supply and demand, and that means having a sufficient number of airfields, and sufficient equipment. A good example of this, which I’ve been involved in when I was chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation, was getting those Grobs out of the hangars and into the air, when it looked like they were going to be scrapped largely because of a paperwork issue (at the beginning of 2020 a substantial part of the ex-Air Cadet Grob fleet was handed over to Aerobility to support its charitable flying activities−Ed). And then making sure that funding reached charities like Aerobility, in order to put in the air not only young people but also people with disabilities, increasing diversity in the sector. Another option I want to encourage is gliding, which is an inexpensive way to fly. In fact, I am myself a product of those efforts to encourage young people to fly: my first flight was in a glider at Lasham, when I was a scout.
Q: We need to make flying more affordable, and we also need to reduce emissions. Electric flying does both. Why doesn’t the government fund, for example, the purchase of fifty electric aeroplanes to help people fly more affordably?
A: The way we would like to do this, in line with our great aviation history, is by supporting innovation at home. So, instead of buying, for instance, fifty Pipistrel Electros off the shelf, we want to encourage domestic innovation that goes into creating new aviation lines. For example, at Old Buckenham Airfield, there’s an initiative to fly an electric aircraft called Nuncats, which is charged on the ground by the use of solar panels. These are people that are innovating, and the government wants to help by funding this kind of innovation: green airfields, green aviation, and the like. There are billions of pounds available in funding, whether it’s greening up aviation with projects like ZeroAvia−which is a government-backed project−or smaller projects like Nuncats. That’s the kind of innovation we want to support, rather than buying somebody else’s technology. Let’s do what we do best, invent and innovate.
Q: A recent problem for GA is that of airspace infringements. A lot of people have been pursued and interviewed by the CAA, sometimes quite aggressively. Some of the investigations have dragged on, only for the accused pilots to be found not at fault, after spending a lot of time and money on their defence. What’s your view on that?
A: I think the CAA has a very important job to do, for instance making sure that people are safe to fly, and checking breaches – whether that’s in engineering or in terms of airspace. But I don’t think the CAA should be the judge, the jury, and the executioner. And so we are working on a new system for appeals. The new system would be something short of ending up in court, which at the moment is essentially the only way to appeal the CAA, but it would be a system that allows for a proper, independent review (see ‘Notes’, p.6). At the Department for Transport we are working, together with the CAA, on this new system, to make sure that proper decisions are made.
Q: So, the institutional framework of the CAA will change?
A: That’s right. The details still need to be organised, but this new system would be an independent panel, not in the CAA. Because at the moment there is no appeal, an appeal goes back to the same people who made the original decision. We want to make sure that there is proper and fair execution of justice, by having this additional panel.
Q: What timing do you see for this change to take place?
A: In the next six months [by March], we’ve been working on this for quite some time. I asked Robert Courts, the Aviation Minister, to address these exact problems. We also considered whether this change should only concern airspace issues, but we came across similar problems with medicals, licensing, engineering and so forth and realized that there should always be a back-stop to make sure that proper decisions are made. To be honest, I think the CAA generally do a terrific job. It’s not easy to be the regulator, they are always going to be the bad guys. But I think there should be a final panel of appeal that you can go to, and that’s what we are setting up.
Q: Some GA operators are also worried about the testing of drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and their use of airspace. What’s you view on this?
A: Drones are a reality; we should welcome them. And I think the UK should take a lead in the operation of drones, in all their possible uses, whether it’s delivery of goods, emergency services, inspections and so forth. But obviously we should make sure that they are properly integrated into the system. So we are experimenting with drone corridors, and of course the fact that they fly lower than most other aviation users is helpful. But, also, another thing that is helpful is the role of Electronic Conspicuity (EC) in all of this, and that’s why we’ve had the government-backed EC fund, to make sure that aircraft and drones do not run into each other. And that’s actually a fund that remains open, so that people can equip themselves to ‘see and be seen’. For instance, here at the LAA rally, compared to two years ago, there are a lot more aircraft equipped with devices to prevent conflict, and drones can be fitted with the same kind of technology. So I see technology, as well as sensible administration, as the way forward.
Analysis: Are we looking at the end of ‘pure’ VFR?
Meeting Grant Shapps was a pleasant experience. He seemed genuine about wanting the best for the light aircraft sector and, being a pilot and of course past Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on GA, was very aware of general aviation issues and technicalities. So, there is some good news in that regard: we have a Transport Secretary who flies, who understands the needs of GA, and who seems to be a sincere supporter of our industry. But, reading between the lines, he also delivered some less encouraging tidings during our meeting at Sywell.
The most relevant one is that the use of Electronic Conspicuity (EC) is high among the aviation priorities of Downing Street. And that means that, if you were hoping that drones would be segregated to fly in small corridors – and that the rest of the airspace would remain unchanged – you may be in for some disappointment. Notice that Shapps did not say that a clear and firm decision has been made on this. However, the strong encouragement towards the use of EC conceivably means that one day aircraft and drones may fly in shared airspace. In other words, the government has not yet made a choice regarding the ‘drone airspace dilemma’ (segregated vs unsegregated), but may be leaning towards the unsegregated option.
Now, that would not be a big deal if there was only the occasional bit of drone flying around the UK. However, that is unlikely be the case, as Shapps confirmed that the government wants the UK to be a leader in this sector. This means that there will continue to be funding and regulatory support for drones, in testing first, and then in their commercial use. Therefore, if we do end up with significant UAV traffic, and unsegregated airspace, there is a distinct possibility that ‘pure VFR’ flying may become a thing of the past – at least in some areas of the UK. In other words, one day it may be technology (and not your eyes) separating you from other aircraft, in a kind of hybrid VFR/IFR environment.
Another interesting point made by Shapps was the need to protect airfields, particularly because in their absence, the economically-struggling young generation is even less likely to fly. I was surprised to hear a minister talk about protecting airfields, and I had the impression he was actually speaking about this topic more as an aviation enthusiast, than as a representative of the government. Possibly this was a hint that the hands of the Transport Secretary – any Transport Secretary – are tied. The reality is that voters want housing (that’s political pressure), that housing developments bring healthy profits (that’s business pressure), and that when these two forces align they become almost unstoppable. For GA there is very little point in trying to apply political pressure because, the APPG(GA) notwithstanding our sector is regarded as a lightweight at Whitehall. What may be more useful is making the ordinary person more widely aware of the benefits that GA brings. Just last month, for instance, we learned that airfields can be extraordinarily important for the environment(‘Airfields’, Pilot, October). Flying can be a life-changing experience for people with disabilities, and Aerobility has turned that dream into a reality. In addition aviation is a formative, nourishing passion for tens of thousands of youngsters in this country, a real healer in some cases, and is only reachable through the necessary stepping stone of general aviation.
It is only right, and ethical, to make sure that everyone can afford a house. But we must remember that, in those homes, there will be lots of kids who will grow up with the dream of flying.
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