Helitours, the Air Force’s domestic passenger carrier, could have been giving indemnity forms to paying customers for several reasons —including the fact that it often flew them on a Harbin Y-12 aircraft not cleared to transport civilians, well-placed aviation sources said. Another reason could be that insurance policies taken out on any of the company’s [...]


Helitours hit more storm clouds over insurance and military call signsBy Namini Wijedasa


Helitours, the Air Force’s domestic passenger carrier, could have been giving indemnity forms to paying customers for several reasons —including the fact that it often flew them on a Harbin Y-12 aircraft not cleared to transport civilians, well-placed aviation sources said.

Another reason could be that insurance policies taken out on any of the company’s airplanes had run out or did not cover its paying passengers. It was also possible that certain flights were being operated under military call signs. This means that commercial passengers on board were not covered by insurance.

The rules and regulations governing commercial flights are much more stringent and comprehensive. For instance, the aircraft must carry minimum fuel, there are separate dispatch procedures and the pilots must hold commercial licences with minimum flying hours. Under the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, commercial flights must also operate with a flight number, not military call signs.

“The boundaries between civilian and military transport keep shifting,” said an authoritative industry source. “This is permissible and they can even share the same equipment but the two operations must be kept separated from each other. The problem is that, here, the boundaries are not clearly defined. They are ambiguous.”

Helitours openly advertises its Y-12 for passenger transport, including charters. The aircraft is part of the fleet published on the official website. The Civil Aviation Authority confirmed, however, that the plane is not part of the Civil Aircraft Register and is not in the Air Operators’ Certificate issued to Helitours. It is, therefore, illegal to use it for commercial passenger transport.

Several issues have surfaced after the Sunday Times published the text of an indemnity form that a customer to Jaffna was recently given. Much is shrouded in secrecy despite Helitours being a commercial, fee-levying business. The Air Force said the forms were an interim measure arising from “an administrative issue” Helitours had with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Further information was not forthcoming.

Civil Aviation Director General H.M.C. Nimalsiri said last week that the introduction of indemnity agreements could be the result of Certificates of Airworthiness (CofA) issued to the company’s Xian MA60 aircraft recently lapsing. The CAA has raised concerns regarding the Chinese-built planes as such aircraft are not certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) or the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose standards the local Authority follows.

It was subsequently found that the CofA for one of the MA60 aircraft (registration 4R-HTN) expired on June 30. The other one (for the plane registered as 4R-HTO) will lapse on Thursday. The indemnity forms were in circulation before these dates and, hence, unrelated to the Airworthiness Certificates.

This gave rise to further questions that the Air Force did not answer. The Sunday Times sent two emails to the Air Force Spokesman’s official address. One requested copies of the CofAs for the MA60 aircraft. Among other things, it asked for further information on the “documentation issue” Helitours had with the CAA.

The second email quoted Clive O’Connell, one of the world’s leading insurance and re-insurance legal professional, as saying: “The idea of the passengers indemnifying the air carrier is extraordinary. I have never heard of that before. Usually an administrative issue would ground aircraft, which gives air carriers an incentive to ensure that everything is in good order in time.” We asked the Air Force Spokesman whether the MA60s were still insured and who had insured them. There were no replies.

Insurance Ombudsman Wickrema Weerasooria said the indemnity form handed out by Helitours would be thrown out by any court of law. “The company cannot say it bears no liability whatsoever to its passengers,” he said. “The usual practice is for carriers to limit their liabilities to certain sums. These are listed on the passenger tickets.”

“They cannot exclude liability totally,” Dr Weerasooria, who has been Ombudsman for ten years, said. “There is a lot of case law on this. No court will uphold it.” It is not clear who drafted the indemnity agreement for Helitours. Section 75 of the Civil Aviation Act states that every holder of an Air Operator Certificate “shall keep in force at all times a liability insurance adequately covering his liability for death or bodily injury to passengers which may be caused by an accident and for the loss of or damage to baggage, cargo or mail, due to any event during the period of carriage and for the delay in the carriage of passengers, baggage, cargo or mail.”

“Such person shall also be required to have a valid and adequate insurance policy covering his liability for damage that may be caused by the aircraft to third parties, on the surface or in the air,” it adds. The CAA’s Civil Aircraft Register shows Helitours (Pvt) Ltd to be the AOC owners as well as operator.

Why, then, should a passenger who buys a Helitours ticket be expected to indemnify the carrier in the event of loss, death, injury or damage? Were commercial passengers being taken on Air Force flights which are not covered by such insurance requirements? Had the policy on Helitours aircraft expired? Was Helitours using planes not listed in the Civil Aircraft Register and are, thereby, not subject to the CAA checks?

Separately, the CAA has sought advice from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on restoring the Certificates of Airworthiness for the MA60s. A “massive checklist” of specifications must usually be met for such renewal. Ever since it started commercial operations, however, Helitours has been securing CofAs for its two MA60s on the basis of incomplete data.

It was found that the acceptance team that travelled to China to take delivery of the MA60s had brought the airplanes back on a promise that the required information, which is a data set to confirm that the aircraft conform to EASA and FAA standards, will be provided later. This was not complied with for many years.

“We have asked them to provide some data and information to fill the gaps,” said a CAA official. “We have now consented to extend the Certificates of Airworthiness because they have promised to do it.” ICAO has also informed the CAA that the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority has finalised the required data reports for the MA60s. They are expected soon.

“The fact that the Airworthiness Certificates issued by the CAA had expired does not mean these aircraft are unsafe,” the official said. “But the airworthiness of the aircraft cannot be ascertained in the absence of those documents.”Subsequent to the Sunday Times report, Helitours and the Air Force are cooperating with the Authority on several matters. The company has agreed to show proof of insurance cover for its passengers and to facilitate routine operation and maintenance checks by CAA inspectors.
But other issues, such as how aircraft are used simultaneously for military and civilian transport, need to be resolved.

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