Half a century of aviation advancements – the UK Civil Aviation Authority celebrates 50 years

Apr 1, 2022

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Today (1 April 2022) marks the 50th anniversary of the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority. 

The past five decades have seen revolutionary advances in aviation, safety and travel, of which the organisation has been at the forefront since its formation.

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The Civil Aviation Authority was formed as part of the Civil Aviation Act 1971, evolving from the Air Registration Board and the Board of Trade in order to oversee the regulation of all civil aviation in the United Kingdom. 

Since 1972 the organisation has worked tirelessly to advance air travel in the U.K. bringing about major safety regulations and protections for travellers including the ATOL scheme and certifying of iconic aircraft such as Concorde and Boeing 757, 767 and the Airbus A310, among others. 

Related: Concorde at 50: Where Are They Now?

Sir Stephen Hillier —  a former senior RAF officer — has been Chair of the Civil Aviation Authority since 2020, where he’s helmed the organisation through one of the most tumultuous periods of travel this century. 

Sir Stephen Hillier
( Chairman of the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority )

Below, we highlight some of the key aviation milestones over the last five decades with exclusive commentary from Sir Stephen Hillier on the ongoing impact of this British institution.

In This Post

The 1970s  

In 1974 Clarksons Travel holiday company collapsed, leaving 35,000 travellers abroad. The breakdown of the company meant that there were insufficient funds to repay those who had paid for their holidays in advance – leaving thousands of travellers out of pocket and the creation of a new scheme to protect travellers.

“This period saw one of the early travel business failures, leading to the creation of the ATOL holiday financial protection scheme, which has supported millions of holidaymakers since,” says Sir Stephen.  

Related: What does ‘ATOL protected’ mean?

392010 02: A British Airways Concorde takes off from Heathrow airport July 17, 2001 in London. (Photo by Sion Touhig/Getty Images)

In 1975, a significant milestone came when Concorde gained its Certificate of Airworthiness from the Civil Aviation Authority, bringing in the era of supersonic travel and arguably one of the most iconic aircraft ever manufactured. 

“The granting of airworthiness for Concorde was both a huge leap forward for aviation technology,” says Sir Stephen. “This was a very clear demonstration of the Civil Aviation Authority’s ability to embrace new technologies and be at the leading edge of regulation.”  

Related: Supersonic History: what routes did Concorde fly?

The 1980s 

The 1980s saw a wave of aviation advancements — it was the period when London City Airport became fully operational and 1982 marked the Civil Aviation Authority certifying the Boeing 757 and 767 for flight, followed just a year later, by the Airbus A310.

The Boeing 757 and 767 airliners, produced by Boeing Commercial Airplanes, during a test flight before entering service. June 1987. (Photo by: Photo12/Collection Bernard Crochet/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Following the Airtours accidents of 1985, the mid-80s also saw the introduction of crucial cabin safety measures: floor level lighting, toilet smoke detectors, greater space around over-wing exits and fire-blocking seat covers. 

“The 1980s saw the introduction of certification of major fleets of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, bringing air travel within the reach of many more travellers,” explains Sir Stephen, “while also seeing the implementation of a number of important safety procedures that we almost take for granted today.”

 The 1990s 

In the 1990s, further safety improvements followed the 1989 Kegworth plane crash where British Midland Airways Flight 092, a Boeing 737-400, crashed onto a motorway embankment while attempting to make an emergency landing at East Midlands Airport.

Related: From engine fires to systems failures: How pilots manage emergency situations

Sir Stephen said: “The official report into the Kegworth disaster resulted in 31 safety recommendations that have made air travel even safer, and came at a time when air travel was becoming a bigger part of U.K. life.” 

By 1997, the aviation industry had become a major sector of the U.K. economy with 15,000 aircraft on the Civil Aviation Authority’s register. At this point, U.K. air traffic controllers were now handling over four million flights a year. 

The 2000s

Following 9/11, the Civil Aviation Authority played a crucial role in protecting airspace, introducing a restriction on flying over central London 

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull known as the ‘2010 ash crisis’ led to the closure of most of European airspace. The Civil Aviation Authority – working in partnership with airspace regulators throughout Europe – managed to set new safety standards and re-open airspace within days.  

An April 2010 volcanic eruption between the Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers in Fimmvorduhals, Iceland resulted in a plume of volcanic ash being thrown into the atmosphere causing flight cancellations and delays across Northern Europe. (Photo by Helen Maria Bjornsd/Nordic Photos/Getty Images)

2014 saw the launch of the Civil Aviation Authority’s dedicated unit helping to further promote the U.K.’s thriving general aviation sector. “Our continuing investment into promoting General Aviation recognises its vital role in providing enjoyment, inspiration and the seedcorn for the next generation of aviators,” said Sir Stephen.

In 2017 and 2019, Monarch Airlines and Thomas Cook collapsed, respectively, with 2019 seeing the Civil Aviation Authority launch the largest repatriation in peacetime history.  

Related: Inside a Thomas Cook repatriation flight on the world’s largest passenger jet

Sir Stephen said: “The last 20 years have seen a number of challenges for the industry with the collapse of Monarch Airlines and Thomas Cook, as well as the unprecedented closures of airspace caused by the Icelandic volcano and the COVID-19 pandemic.” said Sir Stephen.

“Our fantastic staff have always risen to these challenges, at every stage showing flexibility and adaptability in dealing with fast-moving situations and uncertain times.”

The 2020s  

The Coronavirus pandemic leads to another significant disruption of the airspace and travel industry. The Civil Aviation Authority played a key role in supporting the sector during this period of uncertainty, as well as the eventual safe restart of travel.

In 2021, the Civil Aviation Authority took on new powers as the U.K.’s space regulator, helping to develop a safe, innovative and thriving space industry in the U.K. 

What does the future look like? According to Sir Stephen it looks very bright indeed. 

“As air travel recovers, we are setting our sights on a new era – enabling innovation and exciting new technologies, sponsoring a diverse and inclusive aerospace sector, driving efforts to increase the sustainability of the sector, and enabling the U.K.’s ambitious plans for a thriving space industry.”   

Bottom line

The U.K’s Civil Aviation Authority is one of the key bodies responsible for keeping you safe in our skies and allowing you the travel freedom that so many of us enjoy. Without the work of Sir Stephen and his dedicated team business travel, holidays  – both domestic and international – and travel protection and safety as a whole would look a lot different. Here’s to the next 50 years of this brilliant institution. 

Featured image by Jaromir Chalabala / EyeEm / Getty Images

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