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With the regulator celebrating its 50th birthday in 2022, Sir Stephen reflects on the Civil Aviation Authority's role over the past 50 years and its priorities in aviation and aerospace.

Sir Stephen also spoke about why it is important for the CAA to continue to protect consumers and safety while working with industry to deliver on decarbonisation and creating new opportunities for young people to enter into the sector.

Sir Stephen Hillier's speech in full below.

Good morning. It’s now two years since I became Chair of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).  When my mind turned towards Farnborough earlier this year, I was surprised to hear that the CAA did not usually have an official presence at the show – some of us simply visited. 

Well, that’s not my conception of the CAA in relation to Farnborough.  As the UK’s air and space regulator, we’re not visitors to this show, we’re participants.  Yes, we’re an independent safety regulator, but the best way to exercise our responsibilities is not to be a remote authority, but to remain highly engaged across the aerospace sector, nationally and internationally. 

Not leading the sector, but having a key leadership role – setting a proportional regulatory framework; creating the conditions for others to succeed; delegating where appropriate; supervising and conducting oversight; exercising our significant convening authority.  And, of course, leading in our fundamental role of safeguarding the safety, security and consumer interests of those that fly.

Our engagement here is also about understanding, not just current challenges facing the sector, but also where we’re going – understanding what the future regulatory framework might need to look like, as we respond to increasingly rapid innovation in the aviation and space sectors, as well as dealing with pressing issues such as the environmental sustainability challenge. 

I very much look forward to having discussions throughout the day on these themes, and many more besides.  

50 years of the Civil Aviation Authority

I’m especially delighted to be at Farnborough in this particular year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the UK Civil Aviation Authority.  Looking back to 1972, it was not a good year for aviation safety in the UK.  There was a tragic accident near Heathrow, resulting in what remains the single biggest loss of life in a flying accident in the UK. 

Aviation security fared little better, with some 16 major hijackings around the world in that year.  And not that long after the CAA was formed, a major air tour operator collapsed, leading over time to the CAA starting to assume responsibilities for looking after consumer interests.  So, there was serious and important work to be done by the CAA in 1972, and there has been serious and important work for us to do ever since.

It has been an incredible 50 years for the CAA, partly a reflection of what’s happened to the whole aerospace enterprise in that time; partly the steadily expanding perimeter of our responsibilities and authorities.  I’m proud that the CAA, through the tremendous efforts of our people, has been able to sustain its position at the forefront of aviation and aerospace regulation throughout this extraordinary half-century: promoting safety and security; enjoying the trust and confidence of those that we regulate; and delivering the best possible outcomes for consumers and the industry.

Priorities of the Civil Aviation Authority

So much for the history, what are the priorities for the CAA today?  First and foremost, even in the midst of the current highly challenging operating environment, including dealing with travel disruption and cancellations, the CAA needs to remain relentlessly effective in delivering its core regulatory functions.  That might seem obvious, but as the last two and more years have reminded us very clearly, keeping the show on the road day-to-day is not a given and we cannot for a moment forget the enduring importance of getting the basics right; and of having a properly resilient enterprise. 

That was true whilst we were in the depths of the pandemic, when the CAA was highly active in providing advice and assistance to government; monitoring carefully the limited activity which was happening; providing extensions, exemptions and alleviations wherever appropriate; and working with international colleagues and ICAO. 

And it remains true now: the CAA is acutely conscious of the impact on consumers from the current disruptions to air travel, and you will have seen the support and interventions that we have been making to help address the situation, working with government and the sector.   

But the importance of ensuring that aviation safety and security is not affected by this disruption remains at the forefront of our minds; and I know that’s a view held by everyone, across the sector. 

Protecting consumers

A final point in relation to the pandemic, and indeed the disruption which we are now witnessing.  It has highlighted that consumers’ expectations, and indeed the media’s, for what the CAA can do to protect passengers’ interests are running ahead of what is currently within the CAA’s authority to deliver, not least in a timely way. 

That is why we have consistently asked for, and the government has indicated that it supports, strengthened consumer powers for the CAA.  There is nothing revolutionary here: we simply seek equivalent levels of authority to what is already available to other regulators in the UK with similar responsibilities to look after consumers’ interests.

UK’s withdrawal from the European Union

Overlapping the pandemic has, of course, been the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, and therefore from EASA.  The CAA has been busy growing or re-growing our capability to be a sovereign independent regulator following our departure from the EU aviation system.  But whilst we have left EASA, we have very definitely not cut our ties with our European partners, with whom we’ve worked closely for so many years: we want to continue having a strong and effective relationship with our European partners - recognising our shared geography; our enduring shared interest in promoting safety; and the benefits to industry and consumers of avoiding unproductive divergence in regulatory approaches. 

At the same time, we have also taken the opportunity to strengthen even further our engagement with ICAO as well as other regulators around the world. [the announcement by the secretary of state for transport earlier this week at Farnborough of the National Aviation Authorities Network is but one example of our work in this area.]

Space regulation

I mentioned earlier the steadily expanding perimeter of the CAA’s responsibilities.  The most prominent recent example is the CAA becoming the UK’s space regulator one year ago.  We’ve rapidly grown our space capabilities – already we have issued licences for some 145 satellites - and we’re committed to our vital role of enabling the success of the UK space sector and supporting the ambition for a launch from the UK this year, regulating in a proportionate and agile way, consistent with our statutory responsibilities.

Those then are the proximate issues.  What about looking just a little further ahead?  Well as I mentioned earlier, the CAA must be able to adapt to the changing character of the sector, if we are to remain at the forefront of aerospace regulation.  There are many aspects to that changing character, but some are especially worth highlighting. 

First, is the pace of change.  I’m sure that many of our predecessors in aerospace over the last century and more would also point to the pace of innovation and technology development in their time.  Well, I can personally only speak for the 43 years that I’ve been a part of aerospace, but I do still claim that the pace of change today feels faster than it has ever been, as we look to new platforms, new propulsion systems, and a potential profusion of remotely piloted systems. 

Aerospace regulators have a key role to play here.  Obviously, we need to satisfy ourselves, on behalf of the public that we protect, that safety remains the paramount consideration.  And I think it fair to say that many innovators prefer minimum regulation of their businesses, whilst aerospace is closely regulated, based largely on decades of experience of things going wrong. 

Collaborating on innovation

Within the CAA, we aim to bridge this gap through capabilities such as our innovation team, our rapid capabilities office, and our regulatory sandbox – all areas which we’ve invested in significantly over the last few years. 

The aim is to work collaboratively with technology innovators to help them understand – and to help us develop and shape – a future regulatory environment which will allow exciting new technologies to be brought to market.  And to do so at a pace and with the flexibility and agility to secure competitive advantage. 

Engagement with our innovation team does not buy you a regulatory outcome – we are constantly watchful of the risk of regulatory capture - so we maintain strict separation within the CAA between those who work in enabling roles such as the innovation team, and those responsible for the ultimate licensing and certification decisions.  But engagement must surely make a successful outcome more likely and the feedback from those that have engaged with us is consistently positive.

Overall, I’m tremendously excited by where innovation might take the aerospace sector.  There are certainly challenges, both in terms of what is already clear, such as platform design and uncrewed operations, but also in areas which are genuinely largely unknown at this stage – such as the future role that might play in aerospace.  How, for example, might we be able to regulate a system which is constantly adapting and evolving through machine-learning?  With these sorts of thoughts in mind, it’s no coincidence that the CAA stand at this show is in the innovation area – do drop by later and speak to us. 


Then of course there’s decarbonisation, a clear and present issue for all of us and the greatest strategic challenge that global aviation has to address.  Sustainability will, rightly, be dominant in our thoughts and actions across the sector from now and throughout the coming decades – there is much to do to enable our 2050 goal and time is short - it can’t all be assumed to happen in the 2040s.  The UK government has already made clear its ambitions, through jet zero, and through the UK taking a leading role in progress with sustainable aviation.  I am clear that the CAA needs to be similarly ambitious and that we have a vital role to play in enabling and furthering progress. 

Delivering sustainable aviation cannot be about a single programme of activities with one unifying and controlling mind.  A global challenge of this magnitude involves a rich and evolving combination of international commitments and agreements; government leadership and policy; national and international law; public and media pressure; technical innovation; investment; consumer demand – and, of course, regulatory authority and action. 

Across this wide span, the CAA’s role naturally means regulating within the authorities given to us by government – within the existing rule set, and also any further authorities and roles which the government judges it appropriate that we should have in this area. 

But it also means using the CAA’s wider convening authorities – we have a perhaps unique insight across the breadth of the aviation enterprise, and now of the space enterprise too.  Delivering across that breadth requires the CAA to have one of the most significant consolidated body of deep aerospace expertise and experience in the UK – it’s vested in our people - so we need to use this key asset appropriately and well.    

Engaging on sustainability

Our ability to see and engage across all parts of aerospace is one important part of a leadership role in sustainability and wider environmental issues.  But our leadership role also means benefitting from our strong connectivity with ICAO and other national and international regulatory authorities and bodies.  It means helping to enable innovation and the introduction of new technologies.  And it means ensuring that we continue to understand and safeguard the interests of consumers. 

What is the CAA doing in practice?  We’ve developed and published an environmental sustainability strategy, to consolidate and baseline what we’re currently doing, and then to define our role and ambitions.  As a key part of that strategy, we know that we need to be ever-better connected on sustainability – not only reinforcing our existing connectivity with policy and stakeholder groups, but also building new ones where necessary.  The UK can and should play a leading role in sustainability, but there is ultimately no meaningful solution to the challenge which does not involve close international cooperation and agreement. 

I come back also to the close relationship with innovation.  Much of the work of our innovation team is invested in new technologies associated with net zero propulsion, including sustainable aviation fuels, and electric and hydrogen power sources.  But it’s not only new technologies which offer opportunities to fly sustainably in the future.  Operational innovation also counts, in particular the UK’s ambitions for airspace modernisation, offering a potentially rapid opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation in the UK, simply by flying more efficiently. 

Opportunities in aviation and aerospace

There is one other aspect of the wide range of activities which the CAA conducts to enable a thriving UK aerospace sector that I wanted to highlight to you this morning.  It’s important partly because it’s something I feel very strongly about; and partly because it’s one of the leading themes of this show – the promotion of aerospace to young people, and in particular stem subjects. 

As I mentioned, it’s now 43 years since I first qualified as a pilot.  But I still find it easy to remember the sense of challenge and opportunity that I felt aerospace was giving me way back then.   

Easy to remember because I still feel it now.  And I want now to play my part to the full in encouraging young people interest in aerospace and in gaining the skills and qualifications needed to allow them to aspire, to aim high, and to realise their potential. 

The CAA has another opportunity to play a leading role here, and I’m exceptionally proud to say that, starting from a pretty low baseline, in just one year the CAA has progressed to the point that, for example, next week we will be hosting some 950 students aged 15-18 in a virtual CAA work experience programme – engaging with the future aerospace workforce, teaming with careers and social mobility advocates and platforms.

Speaking personally, one of my most striking moments this year was when I received a letter of thanks, following a presentation that I’d given at a primary school in my home-town in Scotland as part of the primary engineer challenge.  She wrote ‘I’d like to be an astronaut because I’ve always liked science and space. You made me think I should stay in school and study hard and do what I want to do in life’.

If you’ve ever done such a presentation and received in return that sort of feedback, you know what it feels like.  If you haven’t, then I strongly recommend that you do.  We all have a responsibility to encourage future generations, and to inspire others as we ourselves have been inspired by aerospace. 

And in doing so, we need to ensure that we make aerospace – and that includes the CAA – more representative of the consumers and wider society that we serve: to ensure that we draw on the full range of amazing talent available across society. 

The CAA is fully committed to improving diversity and inclusion in aerospace, which is why I am very much looking forward to the women in aviation panel session later today, discussing the issue of whether the use of data and metrics is hindering or helping us in improving diversity.  I very much hope that you will be able to attend.

Closing remarks

In closing, thank you for joining me at this morning’s session.  I hope that I’ve given you an insight into some of the things keeping the CAA busy at the moment, as well as some thoughts on our role in dealing with the challenges which lie ahead.  Our aim is to be agile and adaptable, to ensure that we can continue successfully and proportionally to regulate; and to enable aviation and space for another exciting 50 years. 

If you want to know more about us and our work, please come and visit our stand – we very much look forward to engaging with you, to understand your thinking, and to give us the opportunity to explain ours. 

Please, enjoy your day.