EU rules may ruin aerial message business beloved of football fans

Jamie Doward
An anti-Wenger aerial banner at a recent Gunners game. Photograph: Adam Fradgley - AMA/Getty

For the modern football manager, it is the circling of a small plane above the stadium on match day, rather than the traditional vote of confidence once offered by the club’s board following a string of defeats, which now signals that their job hangs by a thread.

Rather than besieging the chairman’s Jag in the club car park, today’s disgruntled fans hire a plane trailing a banner demanding the hapless manager quit.

In recent weeks, Arsenal fans both supportive of and opposed to Arsène Wenger have made their views clear in this high-profile manner.

But now the body that represents pilots of the small planes that trail the aerial adverts has warned that new EU rules coming into force later this month could put them out of business.

The new regulations apply to all commercial operators conducting “high-risk specialised operations”. These include aircraft used for activities such as agriculture, construction, photography, surveying, observation, patrolling and aerial advertisement.

The pilots of single-engined aircraft had believed they were excluded from the new regulations, but have learned that only twin-engined planes, classed as less risky, are explicitly exempted.

As a result, the pilots say they will have to seek authorisation from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) each time they take to the skies, unless it gives them legal confirmation that the new regulations do not apply to them. If not, the pilots say that before each takeoff they face having to complete a lengthy form detailing information on everything from oxygen to crew rest times, something they claim will prove too burdensome for them to continue operating.

Simon Moores, president of the Association of Aerial Work Operators (AAWO), who runs Airads, an aerial advertising company, called on the CAA to clarify its position urgently.

“The immediate problem is that the CAA, on 21 April, will introduce a series of European regulations on general aviation,” Moores said. “These will immediately impact small and specialised one-man operators and threatens to put them out of business.”

Some European countries, such as the Czech Republic and Denmark, have opted not to introduce the regulations in full.

“Towing banners and even aerial photography have been arbitrarily defined by CAA as ‘high-risk’ operations, and, with some 20,000 hours and 20 years of accident-free service among my pilots, I wonder why the CAA has chosen to implement this description,” Moores said. “EASA (The European Aviation Safety Agency) has said the definition is left to the local regulator. Other EU countries clearly don’t perceive these ‘high risks’ in the way the CAA does.”

Moores said his organisation was working with the CAA to achieve a compromise. “Without this small compromise to the new rules we are requesting, no banners are likely to ever fly again over Britain’s big football grounds,” he added.

Without this small compromise, no banners are likely to fly again over Britain’s football grounds

Simon Moores

It is not just football managers who may have little sympathy for the imminent threat facing the pilots. The planes are becoming a popular way of getting political messages across. Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage was injured in 2010 when a plane he was in trailing a party banner crashed in Northamptonshire.

One campaign is looking to charter a plane above Wembley next weekend, when Arsenal meet Manchester City, to trail a banner calling for Ken Livingstone to be expelled from the Labour party and for Jeremy Corbyn to quit as leader.

One of those involved in the campaign, who asked not to be named, said hiring the plane, which costs around £6,000, was a novel way of getting a message across. “A lot of things have been tried already, but when Ken Livingstone wasn’t expelled from the party, well, that’s an absurdity. Sometimes an absurd situation requires an absurd response.”

A spokesman for the CAA disputed the AAWO’s claims and said pilots of small planes had the maximum three years to adjust to the “minor change”. “We are working with the small number of stakeholders to help them move to European regulations,” he said.

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