Helicopter trips for tourists from central George Town have been suspended after a judge ruled the site “may not be considered to be safe” in its current form.
Chief Justice Anthony Smellie pointed to flaws in the decision of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Islands to grant an aerodrome certificate to Cayman Islands Helicopters for its waterfront heliport. Judge Smellie has advised the authority to reconsider its decision in light of his ruling.
The aviation authority announced late last week that it had provisionally suspended the certificate and would be conducting a review.
Jerome Begot, the pilot and owner of the business, insisted the site was safe and vowed to “fight to the end” to resume flying from the waterfront,
The tour operator has an alternative site at Owen Roberts International Airport and continues to fly from that location. The George Town base opened in 2011 in an effort to attract more tourists from the cruise ships in the capital.
In his judgment, released publicly last week, Justice Smellie said the authority had been unduly influenced by a desire to accommodate the “commercial objectives” of the tour operator. He said the authority had failed to ensure compliance with the Overseas Territories Aviation Requirements or to demonstrate that it has ensured an equivalent level of safety to justify deviating from those guidelines.
Issues outlined in the judgment include the fact that the final approach and take-off area is not properly marked, part of the safety area is over the sea and no limitations are imposed for operating with tailwinds in excess of 17 knots. The judgment also points to the fact that there is an electricity pole within the flight path for take-offs and landings.
The judgment concludes: “The heliport may not be considered to be safe for the purposes of the ongoing operation of a helicopter in the manner that it is being operated.”
The ruling follows an application for judicial review from Axis International Ltd, which owns an office building close to the site, and has complained of noise nuisance and safety concerns. The judge upheld some of those concerns, but stopped short of quashing the certification, recommending that the aviation authority was the right body to take action.
“The CAACI has an ongoing ability to monitor and reassess the heliport and decide whether or not to vary, suspend or revoke certification.
“Rather than quashing the certificate, the court should allow the CAACI to exercise this function now in the light of the clarifications of its responsibility and the issues for its assessment provided in this judgment.”
Mr. Begot said he had already suspended flights from the George Town location and wanted to show “good conscience” while the issues surrounding the Heliport were resolved. He maintained that the site was safe and believes that with some revisions, flights will ultimately be able to resume from George Town.
“I am going to be here and I am going to fight to the end because I didn’t do anything wrong. I have just been doing my job properly and safely. I have been flying here for two-and-a-half years and there has never been any problems,” he said. Mr. Begot referred us to his lawyer, George Giglioli, for further comment. Mr Giglioli did not respond to phone calls on Friday.
Whether or not Mr. Begot can ultimately resume flights from the location will be for the Civil Aviation Authority to decide. The judge’s decision does not rule out the possibility that the site could be altered to comply with regulations, or ensure equivalent levels of safety, though Axis International has cast doubt on whether this could ever be possible.
The Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement on Friday that it was disappointed with the judge’s ruling, but accepted its decisions were open to challenge in the courts.
The statement said: “He (Chief Justice Smellie) ruled that the CAACI did not properly satisfy itself that all the regulatory requirements for certification were complied with and ordered that the Authority reassess the Heliport to decide whether or not the certification should stand.”
Susan Olde, a director at Axis International, said the judgment showed the site was inappropriate for helicopter flights and called on the authority to revoke the certification permanently.
“With all the expert evidence that was presented in court, the only appropriate course of action is for the CAACI to revoke the licence immediately. It is clear from the chief justice’s ruling that the location could never have complied with the international regulations according to the experts and as such could never be made safe for helicopter operations – particularly single engine helicopters like the one used by Cayman Islands Helicopters.”
The Air Navigation Overseas Territories Order requires the aviation authority to consider a set of regulations known as the Overseas Territories Aviation Requirements in combination with the helicopter company’s operating manual to make its decision.
Where a Heliport is unable to meet those standards an aeronautical study must be produced identifying alternative means to justify an equivalent level of safety.
Axis’ lawyers argued that the authority had unreasonably relegated the safety standards of the OTARs in its consideration of Cayman Islands’ Helicopters requests for exemptions outlined in its aeronautical study.
The judge agreed that the decision to certify the Heliport was not in accordance with the regulations and an equivalent level of safety had not been guaranteed in several areas.
The judgment pointed out that there had been a ‘gradual erosion of safety standards’ in reference to the regulatory requirement for a 180-degree angle of separation for the take-off and landing path to the point where the authority agreed to a 90-degree angle.
The judge said the 90-degree angle was not, of itself, necessarily unsafe, but he pointed to a number of other factors, including the position of an electricity pole within the approach path as a problem.
The judgment outlined how Mr. Begot had approached the aviation authority prior to renting the George Town site and received some level of assurance that it was appropriate for a Heliport. There is no suggestion that there is anything unethical about this, though the judge points out that it may ultimately have influenced the authority’s decision.
The judge wrote: “It is apparent from the evidence that the CAACI allowed itself to become unduly influenced in the process of certification by its willingness to accommodate the commercial objectives of CIHL. Indeed it may have felt embarrassed and obliged to do so, on account of its own early and premature expression of satisfaction as to the suitability of the Heliport site.”
Ms Olde, of Axis, said she was happy with the decision.
“I am very grateful as a Caymanian citizen to have had the opportunity through the Judicial review process of these islands to help right a public wrong. My motivation throughout the last two years of this somewhat solitary battle for justice has been the same as my motivation in 2005 when I supported the rebuild of 200 or so homes.”