Statoil postpones helicopter cuts

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Top executives at Norwegian oil company Statoil have responded to workers’ concerns and even fears over their helicopter transport to North Sea oil and gas fields. After Friday’s fatal crash of a helicopter near Bergen, Statoil has decided to delay implementation of proposed cutbacks in its helicopter program that were aimed at making it more efficient.

Helicopter transport to offshore oil and gas installations like Statoil's Gudrun platform continued to dominate the news in Norway on Wednesday, following Friday's fatal crash. PHOTO: Statoil/Harald Pettersen

Helicopter transport to offshore oil and gas installations like Statoil’s Gudrun platform continued to dominate the news in Norway on Wednesday, following Friday’s fatal crash. PHOTO: Statoil/Harald Pettersen

Workers, and not least the leaders of their labour unions, had claimed the efficiency efforts could undermine safety. Both Statoil and the helicopter firms bidding for new transport contracts have strongly denied that, but Statoil has decided to wait with putting what it now stresses were mere “proposals” into effect.

They included cutting helicopters’ “turn-around” time between flights by half, and demanding financial compensation from helicopter companies that don’t maintain flight schedules. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Wednesday that Arne Nylund, in charge of Statoil’s North Sea oil fields, seemed to have listened to workers who felt Statoil’s cost-cutting and efficiency programs had gone too far.

‘Won’t be implementing (changes) now’
Nylund downplayed the cutbacks Statoil had demanded of helicopter companies during negotiations for new contracts due to take effect next year. He told DN the proposed cutbacks were “a possibility we have looked at in connection with the contract process, but it’s (just) a possibility and it’s not impemented. It’s important to stress that we won’t be implementing something like it now.”

Nylund told DN Statoil would also discuss the proposals with employee representatives before a new helicopter contract takes effect on May 1, 2017.

The new contract in question won’t be with CHC Helikopter Service, the company that operated the Airbus Super Puma EC225 helicopter that crashed at Turøy while on approach for landing at Bergen’s Flesland airport on Friday. CHC lost that contract in the bidding against Bristow Norway AS, which will take over all offshore transport from Bergen and Florø for five years from the middle of next year. Bristow doesn’t use the controversial Super Pumas either, with Sikorsky S-92 helicopters making up its fleet. They’re reported to be widely preferred by workers commuting to their jobs on offshore oil and gas platforms. Statoil officials pointed out, though, that both the Airbus EC225s and the Sikorskys were “accepted helicopter models” during the bidding process.

‘Super Puma’ helicopters still grounded in Norway
The Airbus EC225s were immediately grounded worldwide by Airbus itself, but it withdrew the grounding order just two days after the crash in Norway that killed all 13 people on board. Even though accident investigators have concluded that the crash was the result of technical and not human error, Airbus claims the accident doesn’t involve “systematic” technical failure and that the Super Puma EC225s are safe to fly.

Norwegian aviation authorities at state agency Luftfartstilsynet, however, have retained a grounding order for the EC225s in Norway. “For us, it’s important that we have as certain information as possible about the flight capabilities of this model before we lift the ban on flying them,” Tor O Iversen, communications director for the authorites, told DN.

Friday’s crash occurred after eyewitnesses saw the helicopter’s rotary blades separate from the aircraft itself. Investigators said it may take more than a year to examine the badly mangled wreckage and pinpoint the cause of the technical malfunction, which they said happened so quickly that neither of the two pilots onboard managed to send out a mayday signal or give any indication of an emergency situation.

Some media noted that Statoil's Arne Sigve Nylund promoted the oil field like a preacher at a revival meeting. PHOTO: Statoil

Statoil’s Arne Sigve Nylund flatly rejects any attempts to compromise safety. PHOTO: Statoil

Nylund and other Statoil executives have been stung by harsh criticism from union officials who have suggested the company’s extensive cost-cutting programs, initiated even before oil prices started to dive, can affect safety. While acknowledging efforts to use fewer helicopters that will be in service more often, and therefore reduce costs, Nylund claimed there would be no reduction in actual security checks of aircraft. The halving of “turn-around” times applies only to baggage handling, passenger boarding and refueling, he said, claiming it was “out of the question” to reduce security checks.

“The pilots shall not feel any pressure to compromise safety,” Nylund said. “A captain is the master and has complete authority over whether a helicopter is ready to fly or not. We respect that.”

Nylund stressed that efficiency will not come at the cost of safety. With the company in mourning, after losing one of its own employees on Friday along with 10 others working on Statoil’s Gullfaks B platform, Nylund stated that “no one benefits from more accidents, on the contrary. Efficiency should make operations more reliable. There should be no conflict between efficiency and safety.” Berglund