HC Deb 14 November 1961 vol 649 cc324-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

10.6 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

My intention this evening is to raise with the House the question of safety standards of independent airlines and particularly charter operators. In my researches, I found out that there are 65 companies owning 508 aircraft, and that of these 55 companies are engaged in public transport with 463 aircraft and that 32 of these companies use aircraft over 5,000 lb. weight and need an air operator's certificate. It is these companies and their services, and particularly their non-scheduled services, such as charter operations, inclusive tours, etc., which are to be my main concern.

There are obviously three categories of air transport operations. There are the corporations, B.E.A. and B.O.A.C., with their scheduled services; there are the independent airlines with their scheduled services; and then there are the nonscheduled flights both by the corporations and by the independent airlines, which are regularly called charter operations.

I want to confine my remarks in the main to the independent companies, because I find that it is their operations which are the ones which should be spotlighted because, within their operations, they are giving us some concern about air risks and dangers and fatal accidents.

I should like at the outset to give credit to an organisation which, for the benefit of its own members, has done some research into this matter. I refer to the Institution of Professional Civil Servants. It has on two occasions made a survey of the safety standards of air travel. It was checking movements. All sorts of calculations can be made about air accidents, whether by movements or by the number of million miles flown. The Institution checked 800,000 movements in and out of United Kingdom airports in the years 1951 to 1955, and revealed that the number of accidents per movement in that period of time was five times as high in the case of charters as against scheduled services, and this period included the time when we had the Comet disasters which put the scheduled figures higher than usual. The Institution repeated the survey in 1958, and the ratio rose from five to one to seven and a half to one. I shudder to think what the ratio may be in the figures this year because of the unfortunate accidents we have already had.

I recognise that there can be many aircraft accidents with no loss of life, and hence one independent aircraft company may have suffered five or six accidents but with no fatalities. On the other hand, one may have an extremely good company. A company, may have had a long and successful period of safe travel, but one accident resulting in loss of life can make it appear that its record is worse than that of a company which has had many accidents but no fatalities.

The independent air companies fare worse than the corporations in accidents, fatalities and the like, but the chartered services face worst of all. According to an estimate made in Flight in its edition of 19th October: The independent fatality rate over the past six years has been eight times higher than the corporations. We have recently had before us the Civil Aviation (Licensing) Act, 1960, and flowing from that the setting up of the Licensing Board, and we have recently received its first Report. Quite frankly, neither the Board set up under the Act nor the Licensing Board itself will prove effective in scrutinising the companies, their aircraft or the chartered operations, nor will they be able to take forceful measures to stop many of these accidents.

Paragraph 16 of the first Report of the Licensing Board says: We are in process of examining the financial standing of all operators but this will take some time. Meanwhile the grant of licences for services to be operated in the near future must, in most cases, rest upon a more perfunctory examination of financial resources than we shall make later on. Section 2 (4) of the Licensing Act, 1960, says: … the Board shall not consider the matters in respect of which an air operator's certificate is required, that is to say, the competence of the applicant to secure that aircraft operated by him will be operated safely. It would appear that at the moment the Board is overwhelmed with applications and is giving only a cursory glance at the finances. Secondly, according to the subsection of the Act, it is not empowered to examine the competence of the aircraft or the company's operations.

Group Captain C. A. B. Wilcock (Derby, North)

My hon. Friend's interest in this matter is very much appreciated. This matter is of interest to all passengers, but may I point out to him that charter companies are tested, tried and examined with regard to maintenance and operations in precisely the same way as the Corporations are, whether it is a scheduled service flight or a chartered flight. The whole process is gone through in the same way, and Ministry approval has to be obtained. The Ministry's inspectors pass the aircraft, the pilots and the routes in precisely the same way as they do for aircraft flying from London to New York.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. This is a short Adjournment debate.

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend for his intervention. He has a vested interest. I do not go all the way with him, because I cannot agree entirely with what he said about these companies.

What about the equipment of these companies? To what extent does the Ministry examine their navigational aids, the routeing of their flights, the use of what may be termed little-used airports, contrary to those used by the Corporations, the use of airport equipment, particularly when 40 per cent. of bad accidents occur on the approach to landing, either in stacking or on coming in to land?

These companies cannot possibly compare with the Corporations. The Corporations fly on regular routes and use regularly-used airports. They have skilled technicians available for servicing their aircraft. They employ aircraft and airports equipped with all the modern devices to help safe landing. They carry the nation's name abroad. Consequently, they tend to be more cautious, and this in itself makes a difference. B.E.A. alone spends more than £1 million on training facilities for pilots.

What of the independents? Can they really compete? They cannot compete on this scale of safety precautions. The charter operations themselves cause concern. They may have aircraft which are not often used, and crews not regularly flying. They are used more at the peak periods of the holiday season, but not so much during the winter. They are often going on new and unknown routes, and the pilots may not be as familiar as the Corporations' pilots are with the aircraft and its equipment. How does the Ministry and its inspectorate keep watch on this type of operation?

What about pilot fatigue? This is usually on arrival at the end of a flight or because of an excessively long working day. Is not this much more likely to happen on charter operations and inclusive tours than on the scheduled services of either Corporations or independents? They might be on an unusual route going over strange territory and, if flying on instruments, greater concentration is required. Because of the peak periods of traffic in the summer, there is obviously flogging of the machines and crews.

Group Captain Wilcock rose

Mr. Mason

This summer at least 200,000 holiday-makers will be going abroad. If on an average there are 60 aircraft on in and out movements it daily means that there are bound to be at least 7,000 flights on Charter and inclusive tours. These are not all the year round flights, not scheduled services, but charter services. The demand exists and, therefore, competition is very keen. All sorts of aircraft are brought into service and the crews are working harder during that period of time than on the scheduled services.

Group Captain Wilcock rose

Mr. Mason

It comes to my notice that Captain Thain, who was the pilot of the B.E.A. chartered flight which crashed at Munich when the Manchester United team was involved and who obviously has been used as a scapegoat for many years since that time, has now his licence back and is working on a chicken farm. It is now possible for him during peak periods of operation to come from mucking out chickens to flying passengers.

One of my hon. Friends raised a Question with the Minister on 23rd October about independent airline pilots who have been sacked from B.E.A. because of inefficiency and who are now used as pilots on independent airlines. We should have figures as to the extent to which these pilots are being used. It is not only the pilots. It is well known that cast-off Corporation aircraft go to independent airlines. The aircraft involved in the Stavanger accident was 16 years old.

I am not satisfied that the Ministry of Aviation has imposed upon the independents and their charter operations the general safety standard required by the Corporations, nor has it given passengers the degree of assurance to which they are entitled. Neither am I satisfied that the Ministry is equipped or has the power to scrutinise these charter operations sufficiently in detail. The Licensing Board in itself, allied with the Act, will not prove to be the Ministerial investigator that we so urgently desire.

The Cairns Committee did an excellent job and produced a fine report. The terms of reference are circumscribed and deal with investigations after the accidents have happened. I ask the Minister to consider whether there is not a need for a committee to be set up on aircraft accident prevention dealing with all services and particularly with the charter operations.

Finally, I refer to a point stressed in paragraphs 6 and 13 of the Report of the Licensing Board. What about companies registering their aircraft abroad, thereby escaping our regulations? The Minister has reserve powers to deal with such an eventuality. Can he say whether companies have tried this, and whether his reserve powers have been used? In any case, would it not be better for him to introduce a regulation to plug this gap?

Because of the recent high accident rate—no fewer than 67 people have been killed on independent charter operations since July—it is clear that something more positive should be done by the Ministry. There is a great deal of public concern about the matter, and I hope that the Minister, tonight, will give us a reply which will indicate, first, the concern of his own Department, and, secondly, the steps that he intends to take at least to make this type of operation safer in future.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I am somewhat alarmed at the latest figures that I have been able to get for 1959, based on movements of aircraft out of the United Kingdom. These show, first, that non-scheduled flights have an accident ratio of about seven to one as compared with scheduled flights. Secondly, my family has a young friend who is an assistant pilot with B.O.A.C. He has been flying for nine months with B.O.A.C., but has not yet been allowed to touch the controls because he is being route tested the whole time. To what extent does this route testing take place with charter companies?

Thirdly, what about the age of the aircraft? The crash at Perpignan concerned a Dakota aircraft, and we know that they can be as much as twenty years old. Is there any limit to the age of an aircraft? Can a pilot take up an aircraft that is forty years old, with passengers? Such an aircraft obviously has not the height to get over mountain ranges. I should like to know what the various regulations are concerning aircraft which carry passengers.

10.22 p.m.

Mr. George Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I am sorry that we cannot have a longer debate on this important topic. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) has done a public service in highlighting some of the anxieties we all feel, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to allay those anxieties as a result of experience within the Ministry. I am sure that that is the wish of all of us.

We have no cause to be alarmist over this mattes, but there is equally no room for complacency. There is real public anxiety on the matter, and if we are to create an ever-growing public which is aviation-conscious and willing to use our aircraft to the full, and make them a success, we must convince them, above all, of the paramount safety of our aircraft operating companies. We have a duty to maintain the highest standards of operation, whether on scheduled or non-scheduled flights.

The figures we have been able to obtain seem to indicate that there is a greater risk with non-scheduled operations than with scheduled operations, and we need assurances in the matter. First, we should like to be assured that, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Derby, North (Group Captain Wilcock) says, the same maintenance standards are operated and effective. Secondly, we want an assurance that pilots and navigators on non-scheduled flights are as competent as those operating scheduled services. There are two other points, especially concerning recent accidents, into which there have been investigations. There is a need for speedy investigation. At present, investigations take far too long. There is also a need for spreading the knowledge gained from an examination of the accident, not only among technical people but among a wider section of the public.

The questions that need answering are these: are the standards set for charter operations less stringent than those for regular scheduled operations? How far is the drive for cheaper all-in fares carried out at the cost of maintenance and other expense which would be incurred by the Corporations in maintaining reserve fleets? Is there any skimping of maintenance to get lower and lower competitive prices for inclusive tours? Is it true, as some of the latest events seem to indicate, that some airline operators are running on a shoestring? When I find that for about £2,000 a person can start up a company and operate aircraft it makes my hair stand on end.

Accidents can happen to the best firms, however, and some of those which have happened recently have been to the best firms, and we very much regret them. I think that we must keep a sense of proportion about this matter and remember that it is no more dangerous to fly in a plane than to ride in a train, and that it is far safer than trying to cross the road. But there is real public anxiety and the Ministry has a duty to allay that anxiety. I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Woodhouse.

Group Captain Wilcock

May I just say—

Mr. Speaker

I do not understand what the hon. and gallant Gentleman is talking about. I called the Minister.

10.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

I am grateful for the final remarks of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd). I wish to emphasise that I have no intention of taking this as a cue for complacency. We have very little time for debate this evening, but I think that before long there will be a later opportunity to debate this subject over a much wider front. I will do my utmost to cover as many points as I can, but I am sure that hon. Members will excuse me if I cannot deal with everything this evening.

I should like to say a word about statistics which have been used. As I suggested last week, statistics should be used with great caution and not without reference to other factors which are also important. By taking these very figures one could prove that it was in some years more dangerous to fly with the Corporations than with the independents. That would be an unfortunate conclusion to bring people to. I am not impugning the Corporations or the independents. The Corporations have a good record, but that does not mean necessarily that the independents have a bad one. I want to emphasise the old saying about statistics of which I need not remind hon. Members.

I wish to mention two factors which the statistics leave out of account. One is that the number of people killed in any one accident is fortuitous and, therefore, as the hon. Gentleman said, one bad accident may distort the statistics completely, especially as, fortunately, fatal accidents are. on the whole extremely rare.

Another relevant factor is not merely the length of mileage flown, but the number of stages, the going up and coming down over shorter stages. The most dangerous points of a flight, as has been said, are coming into land and taking off. It is a natural consequence of the nature of the operation of these two types of organisations that the independents tend to fly more and shorter stages than the Corporations and are, therefore, more exposed to that factor. I do not wish to go on about statistics, because they refer to the past and hon. Members wish to consider the future. Briefly, I wish to stress the main instruments which lie in the hands of the Minister at the moment.

There is the system of air operators' certificates. I do not need to remind the House what lies behind this provision but I think it would be useful if I described briefly what is involved in the process of issuing certificates to an independent operator. Before a certificate is issued the Director of Aviation Safety must satisfy himself that the operator has an adequate organisation to provide services safely. This he does by means of detailed inspections of the operator's ground organisation carried out by flight operations inspectors and his training inspectors. There are 48 of them at work. These inspections cover the operator's ground organisation, the equipment of the aircraft; the licences of the flying staff, the statutory arrangements for duty flying and rest periods, the arrangements for ensuring the continued general competence of pilots and their competency on the routes flown, the arrangements for the conduct of their operations including flight preparations, and the loading and fuelling of aircraft both at base and at other airports and the keeping of records of past operations with particular attention to loading, fuel, crew flight and duty times and the observance of company weather minima. I think it fair to say that exactly the same standards apply to the independents as to the Corporations.

Mr. Chetwynd

Can 48 people do all that?

Mr. Woodhouse

It is spread out over a considerable time and it is a continuing process. My advice is that they are able to keep up with their work. As a matter of fact, they have been in process of inspecting the companies involved in recent clashes within a few months of the crash taking place. In parenthesis, I stress—it has been pointed out already—that the three companies which had fatal crashes in the last few months all previously had a good accident record. They are among the better independent operators from that point of view.

I turn briefly to the question of airworthiness and the length of service of aircraft. In the inspections which lead up to an air operator's certificate, the Air Registration Board has to be satisfied with the operator's maintenance organisation and his system of air worthiness control. The inspector has to ensure that there are annual examinations of every aircraft for airworthiness, annual performance checks and the setting of safe lives for parts of the aircraft which are subject to fatigue. This is defined, although I cannot give the periods for particular parts. Where the performance of an aircraft type diminishes with age, the safety standards are maintained by Imposing limitations on the operations which that aircraft is allowed to undertake.

The question of pilot competence was also raised. I reiterate that the standards imposed are exactly the same for an independent operator as for the Corporations. It is a fact that a number of pilots have gone from the Corporations to independent operators, but too much weight should not be put on this point, because pilots, for many different reasons, have wanted to shift from the Corporations to the independent operators and there is also a traffic in the other direction.

Mr. Mason

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that they are proving themselves inefficient or lacking in discipline in order to get away and into an independent airline?

Mr. Woodhouse

I am not suggesting anything of the kind. There are some people who prefer to work for a smaller organisation where they have a chance of arriving more quickly at the post of captain of an aircraft than they have in the Corporations.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is there route testing in the independent companies over the routes which they are to fly?

Mr. Woodhouse

I will come to that.

I repeat—this is a constant theme—that the provisions for route testing are exactly the same for the independent operators as for the Corporations. Before they fly a particular route they are required to have an adequate knowledge of the route, of the navigational aids along the route and of the airfields to be used. They have also to be tested on instrument approach to land systems of the type in use at the aerodrome of intended landing.

Pilot training is obviously very important in the long term. There is a college of air training at Hamble, established by the Government for the benefit of the Corporations and also the independent operators. I am glad to say that the independent operators are using it.

On the question of foreign registration, there was one case in which it was believed that a British company was using a foreign registration in order to get round our regulations. That company was denied by the Minister the right to operate into and from this country. I do not know of any other case, but if the hon. Member knows of one, we shall certainly take it up and make use of the powers which the Minister has to make sure that there is no bypassing of our regulations.

A company genuinely registered abroad is in a different position from a British company which is, one might say, masquerading as a foreign company, but since there has to be reciprocity in arrangements between ourselves and foreign countries over genuine companies based in our respective countries, we should, naturally, not apply the Minister's powers in an indiscriminate broadcast way to foreign companies.

There are two other points on which I have time to comment. The first is the dissemination of knowledge of flight safety measures. Expressly intended for this purpose there is a publication called Flight Safety Focus "being published by the Flight Safety Committee. This is reaching the hands of the people to whom it is most valuable.

Finally, the hon. Member for Barnsley renewed the proposal made a week or two ago for a general inquiry into this whole sphere of activity. I have conveyed this suggestion to my right hon. Friend, as I said I would, but we have come to the conclusion that it is not an appropriate step to take at this time. The air operators' certificates are a new system which has been brought in only within the last few months. Any inquiry conducted now would inevitably be an inquiry into that system. We believe that it is premature to undertake anything of that kind until it has had a chance to prove itself. We believe that it is proving itself. We think that it is the most effective instrument that the Minister has ever had for enforcing standards of safety. It can be sharpened, if necessary. If the current investigations into the three recent crashes prove any need for this instrument to be sharpened, it will certainly be done, but we do not believe at the moment, given the short life it has had so far, that a general inquiry would serve any useful purpose.

I hope that I have covered, without trespassing too far over time, most of the points which have been raised in the debate, which has been extremely valuable to us in the Ministry and which I am sure will be renewed in another form when we debate the Corporations in a week or two's time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'clock.