Differing views of a regulator’s relationship with industry when it comes to ash and oil

News has been in ample supply these past weeks, with the meltdown in Greece, the UK election, Europe’s continuing air travel disruption caused by the volcanic ash cloud and BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico jostling for space on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

At least two of these stories – the ash cloud and the oil slick – have striking similarities.

The airline industry and big oil are both complex and cutthroat businesses in which safety is paramount. Both industries supply consumers with what many argue they would not want, or be able to, live with out. And both industries are highly regulated.

As the ash cloud continues to sully the skies over Europe and the oil plume spreads across the Gulf of Mexico, the airlines and oil companies face industry-changing fates.

In both cases regulators hold the keys.

In the case of the airlines, European regulators are bending to the calls of British Airways and others to lower requirements regarding how much ash is safe to fly through.

Here is Andrew Haines, chief executive of Civil Aviation Authority, the air safety watchdog, noting it took regulators less than a working week to loosen their rules. He was facing criticism – mainly from the industry – that previous standards had been too stringent.

“We achieved what often takes years in 96 hours. When you are dealing with people’s lives it is not enough to say, this guidance looks a bit restrictive, let’s just make up a less restrictive one, you have to agree new safety guidelines that are evidence based.”

In contrast, US regulators who oversee the oil industry are coming under fierce criticism for relying too heavily on what the industry tells them is safe.

Here is US President Barack Obama on the too “cozy” relationship between oil companies and US regulators:

“For too long, for a decade or more, there’s been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies. That cannot happen anymore.”

One of the most obvious differences between the two industries’ stories is that the oil companies are fighting the fallout from one of the worst accidents in their modern history, while the airlines’ problems stem from the wrath of an Icelandic volcano.

The tone in Europe would change dramatically if an aircraft fell from the ash tinged sky.

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