Brussels

Out of Reach

Europe's environmental aspirations and targets are once again set to stir up the aviation industry.

First there were the noise rules for aircraft operating to EU airports, then there was the controversial legislation to include aviation in the EU's Emissions Trading System, and now plans are taking shape to ban or further restrict the use of certain chemicals in aircraft manufacturing and the aftermarket.

European MRO companies are genuinely concerned about upcoming new regulatory requirements and probable prohibition of the use of various chromates such as chromium trioxide in their shops. If those requirements are put into place, aircraft maintenance providers in the 27-nation bloc will be at a competitive disadvantage compared to counterparts in non-EU countries. These new rules also could potentially compromise compliance with U.S. FAA and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) safety standards and requirements for maintenance, repair and overhaul activities.

The culprit is Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals). The legislation is the result of seven years of debate, is almost 1,000 pages long and tops the charts as the most complex bill in EU history. It requires companies to register data on 30,000 chemicals with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki, Finland, seek authorization for the use of substances of very high concern (SVHC) and substitute these chemicals with safer alternatives for human health and the environment. SVHCs need to be authorized for specific uses if they appear in Annex XIV of the legislation.

The Reach chemical safety regulation came into force in mid-2007 with implementation to be phased in over a decade. European OEMs and MRO providers already have witnessed supply chain disruptions for crucial chemicals and compositions—such as sealants, adhesive paints and flame retardants—because some producers or importers opposed the heavy administrative burden of registering the properties of their substances with the ECHA.

“We have encountered supply chain disruptions for certain products we need for approved maintenance. Since 2010, mostly, some sealants were displaced from the EU market without any announcement because manufacturers did not want to go through the complicated, lengthy and expensive registration process,” Lufthansa Technik's manager corporate environmental management, Ralf Wunderlich, tells Aviation Week.

The tentacles of Reach are now widening and this will have far broader consequences for Europe's OEMs and MRO organizations. Last October, the European Commission (EC) launched the “comitology” legislative procedure to add various chromates to Annex XIV. They are unique in that they are covered under type certificates that establish compliance with FAA and EASA safety requirements.

“There is a clear conflict between the Reach legislation and the FAA EASA safety requirements,” says Vincent De Vroey, Association of European Airlines (AEA) general manager for technical and operations .

He warns that the SVHC list is rapidly increasing with more and more substances that are essential to provide maintenance and repair within recognized and proven safety standards. Cadmium is just one example of a new addition to the Reach list of substances of very high concern.

“Why should EU airlines and their maintenance, repair and overhaul organizations be required to obtain Reach authorization if it is the only means to comply with EASA's stringent aviation safety requirements,” De Vroey says.

AEA's question is valid. Yet, as Wunderlich stresses, “it is a situation we are actually facing for chromium trioxide and hexavalent chromium compounds.” These substances are crucial for maintenance and overhaul, and for manufacturing activities. Hexavalent chromium for example is widely used for hard-chrome plating in landing gears, engines and other components. There is no comprehensive substitute.

The authorization process for SVHCs is complex and without precedents. Due to comprehensive data and analysis requests, approval costs have been estimated at up to €5 million ($6.85 million) per substance and per use. In addition, the ECHA can refuse to grant authorizations. And, it can take 35-53 months for rulings on applications. This is a “completely unrealistic” timeline, AEA writes in its position paper on the EC proposal to add chromates to Reach Annex XIV.

Although significant research to identify suitable replacements for these materials has been underway by aircraft manufacturers, their suppliers and customers, no drop-in alternatives exist today or should be expected for a majority of aerospace uses in the near future. Many alternatives have been tested, but have not passed the performance requirements. Even if, in the near future, alternative solutions become available for new airplanes, legacy aircraft will need to be supported for another 40 years.

The industry has addressed the needs of the aerospace sector and its safety requirements regarding these substances with the ECHA, but thus far with no success. A high-level meeting between EASA and ECHA officials was scheduled for the end of January in the EASA offices in Cologne, Germany.

If EU member states do not withdraw the chromate proposal, thousands of jobs within the aerospace sector could be lost. “Airlines will likely bring their aircraft, engines and components to maintenance shops in non-EU countries, such as Turkey and Egypt, which are not confronted with the burden of Reach,” Wunderlich asserts, revealing that the majority of the parts that Lufthansa Technik maintains or repairs in its Hamburg facility are affected by the Reach legislation.