HC Deb 25 November 1969 vol 792 cc380-90

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

12.4 a.m.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising what is becoming an increasingly debated subject in the newspapers and in other places. It is an odd paradox that in these days modern navigational and computer aids permit Apollo 11 to take off 700 milliseconds late and arrive five minutes early on the moon, after a 102-hour journey, and at the same time permit Captain Armstrong and his crew to step out on the moon's surface three hours early without ground assistance; that it these modern navigational and computer-based aids could only be achieved on earth, substantial improvements in modern aviation could be secured.

On the North American Continent and in Europe air traffic navigational problems and air congestion have reached the point where they begin to raise serious concern. North America has reached the stage when the typical cartoon joke in the newspaper is about air congestion and the Department of Transportation is so concerned that it is prepared to spend large sums of money on subsidising ground transportation experiments in congested areas because of the great difficulties involving air traffic navigation and congestion, particularly on the north-east corridor route between Washington, New York City and Boston.

I cannot help wondering how long it will be before we experience a similar situation in this country. I will quote from Captain Laurie Taylor, Chairman of the British Airline Pilots Association, at the start of a symposium it is holding this week, for which I commend it. He said: I can be over mid-Atlantic or Indian Oceans and unable to communicate with air traffic control because of high frequency radio telephone system deficiencies. This happens in a year when astronauts some 200,000 miles out can be heard all over the world on television. At times I don't know where I am unless the air traffic controller tells me. Navigation information tells a pilot where he is not, rather than where he is. This is the Chairman of B.A.L.P.A., still a practising pilot, talking, and I cannot help feeling that if he and members of his association feel so concerned about this, many of us who do not have so many flying opportunities ought also to be concerned. I do not want to be a panic-monger or scaremonger and I do not want to say that every member of the travelling public has to be concerned, because things have not reached that stage at all.

I would pay tribute to the good safety record of the nationalised air corporations, B O.A.C. and B.E.A., because it has been proved many times over that they have an excellent record. I would also pay tribute to the air traffic controllers because they do an excellent job in the difficult circumstances and difficult weather conditions we experience in this country.

I am not casting any slurs on the personnel involved in this exercise. There is a growing concern on the part of the pilots and air traffic controllers and many others involved in aviation over this matter.

Recently, air misses, the shorthand for near mid-air collisions, have been brought to public attention by press reports of an air miss on 28th July between a B.O.A.C 707 flying from New York to Heathrow and a T.W.A. aircraft flying to Zurich. This occurred 400 miles north-west of Shannon and according to a reply to a Parliamentary Question I put to the President of the Board of Trade this was in some measure due to a communications failure. I am glad to say that this failure is being investigated and I hope that my hon. Friend can tell the House something about this breakdown tonight.

The other incident which has been brought to public attention through the press is a second air miss over Epsom on 11th November between a Boeing aircraft of E1 A1 bound for Tel Aviv and a B.O.A.C. VC.10 which had just come from Teheran.

On asking the President of the Board of Trade a question about this I was told by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State (Mr. Goronwy Roberts) that the pilots saw each other in close proximity and took avoiding action. A steward and two passengers in the Boeing received minor injuries but no one in the VC.10 was hurt.

Apart from that, the whole thing reflects on the serious situation when two aircraft travelling at rather slow speeds can have to take this kind of action to avoid each other.

Air miss figures were quoted for last year as 120 in the Sunday Times of 16th November. I put down another Parliamentary Question to the President of the Board of Trade and was told that information was being collated for me. I was asking for the reported air miss statistics from 1960 to the present day. I hope that in his answer, my right hon. Friend will be able to provide some of this information tonight.

Perhaps an even better guide and a worse portent are the American figures for mid-air collisions and air miss statistics for last year. The Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S.A., which is responsible for air traffic safety reported 38 mid-air collisions last year. Apart from that, there were 2,230 air miss incidents. Perhaps the most worrying feature about these 2,230 was that 732 of them were in airline operations. About half of the incidents reported—in other words, 1,128—were classified as hazardous, and the remainder as non-hazardous, but the rate of hazardous incidents reported was at least one in 50,000.

I do not suggest that that is the kind of figure which we are approaching in this country, but if we do not take some action, as the density of aircraft frequencies increases and as the tendency of the public to use air transportation increases, this is perhaps the kind of statistic that we could ultimately witness over Europe.

If I can fit the growth of the problem into a more general pattern, that is what I want to do. We are dealing with a situation in which world scheduled airline passenger traffic will double again by 1975, and it will increase by four times by 1980. That represents an annual growth rate of 12 per cent. Apart from that, we have an annual growth rate in air freight of some 20 per cent. But it is not as simple as that. Not only do we have to fit this air miss problem and these general air traffic navigational difficulties into a general background of growth; we have also to fit them into a general background of a rapidly changing pattern of air traffic.

It is over the next decade that we shall see a different pattern emerging, especially on some of the longer journeys. The supersonic air transports will take off some of the cream of the longer distances, while the subsonic traffic will be mainly carried by aircraft like the Boeing 747, the jumbo. Whereas now most scheduled carriers and even some charter operators are using 707's, DC8's and DC9's, which have mainly similar operating characteristics, in future SST's and jumbos will be used at the same time, and those two aircraft have vastly different operating characteristics. At the same time, there will be an increased use of short take-off and landing and vertical take-off and landing aircraft, all of which will mean a radically different pattern of traffic.

Apart from that, we shall see a great increase in light aircraft, especially for business use, and a great increase in charter operations, mainly for inclusive tour holiday travel. Last year London Heathrow Airport handled 247,431 air traffic movements. That was only the tenth largest in the world. Between 31st July, 1968, and 31st July, 1969, the number of air passengers using Heathrow as a terminal increased by 4.5 per cent. These are all measures of the increase in air passenger traffic in this country.

At O'Hare Field, Chicago, air traffic control has handled as many as 217 aircraft in one day. Most American airports are accustomed to handling at least 100. At the moment London Heathrow is hovering between 60 and 70, and it may be that by 1979 there will be more light aircraft and charter operations than scheduled commercial frequencies.

Some action is needed, and, if I might echo the general sentiments expressed this morning at the British Airline Pilots Association's symposium, I feel that the general technical back-up on the ground is failing to keep pace with a very fast-changing air pattern in the skies.

At the last conference of the International Civil Aviation Organisations in Montreal, the organisations and airlines adopted a point source system of air traffic navigation, instead of the area navigation concept, for which the air traffic controllers' and pilots' associations have been pressing since 1950. This was a great blow to many in this country who know the great advances which have been made by British firms.

The airline pilots and air traffic controllers are advocating the area navigation concept because not only does it make far better use of air space but it helps to obviate some of the difficulties in not being able to see and be seen which many pilots encounter. The old theories about seeing and being seen by aircraft simply do not operate because of modern take-off speeds, noise restrictions, flight deck design, and so on.

No doubt my right hon. Friend will mention the new £25 million computer complex at West Drayton and the great advances being made by the Blind Man Mediator system which will ultimately cover the country, and I support him in that. At the same time, I hope the Department will do far more sounding out of the case, and far more pressing of it, for the introduction of the area navigation concept to cover not only this country but the rest of the world, particularly in congested areas.

I also put to my right hon. Friend some suggestions for further improvements. I hope he will refer to the secondary radar installations which at least give air traffic controllers some height indication. Secondary radar is still lacking in many airports even in this country. We can, of course, have improvements in runways and talk about taking runway specifications and airports up to categories 2 and 3, but secondary radar is urgently needed in many places.

I hope my right hon. Friend will mention the computerisation of data and other computer facilities and satellite communication, which avoids the ground bounce which has to be done on radio waves and on which Pan Am and T.W.A. are already co-operating with the Federal Aviation Agency in interesting experiments.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will mention something about the need to prevent the stacking of aircraft around major airports because it is estimated that at least 40 per cent. of the possible collision prospects occur within the stacking concept and stacking zones. I hope he will also refer to collision avoidance systems, about which a great deal is being done in the United States.

My time is short. I should have liked to say more about the great concern of B.A.L.P.A. about Luton. Since an Observer report on 22nd June, in which it was stated that there was a rather tangled complex of possibilities involving light aircraft, scheduled aircraft, charters, gliders and even parachutists, the association has been very concerned and is keeping a special dossier on air miss statistics.

Since the intention of myself and others to raise this in various places was announced, several of my hon. Friends have voiced their concern about their own local airport situations. Concern has been expressed to me about Cardiff, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) shows some concern about Glasgow, Turnhouse.

I appreciate that many of the concepts I am advancing are going to be opposed to a certain extent by the light aircraft lobby. I know that there is a growing number of light aircraft and business aircraft users and that they are building themselves up into a powerful lobby. At the same time I would point out that B.A.L.P.A., which is pushing strongly for area navigation concepts and other improvements, has among its members many who are light aircraft pilots themselves.

What I am trying to ask for is a declaration of the Department's intention to take this matter much more seriously than it appears to have done hitherto. We are talking of a situation illustrated by a recent article in Flight International, which said that an examination of air accident statistics that it conducted, showed that eight out of 13 accidents had been caused by "navigational difficulties".

"Navigational difficulties" covers a multitude of difficulties; but I venture to suggest that most of these come under the kind of headings to which I have been referring. Accident statistics for aircraft, both chartered and scheduled, are not improving. Concern about the principle of stacking aircraft waiting to come into major airports increases. We are talking about all this at a time when air travel is no longer for the minority. Air travel is coming within the reach of many more pockets not only on inclusive tour operations, but also on chartered operations and, indeed, on worldwide scheduled operations.

Without wishing to alarm my right hon. Friend and without wishing to get him to make any panic-mongering statement, I should like to draw to his attention my concern and that of the British Airline Pilots Association in the hope that he will be able to give me and some of the many others who are concerned about this matter some kind of reassurances.

12.21 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) has said, may I ask the Minister whether he has given a directive yet that no light aircraft should be allowed to take off from Turnhouse Airport, Edinburgh, or that there should be military diversions from Luton to Turnhouse, pending examination of the alleged air miss which I brought to his attention following an Adjournment debate last week?

12.22 a.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Goronwy Roberts)

I think the House would agree that it would be difficult, indeed impossible, to overemphasise the importance of the subject which my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) has raised tonight.

There is the very special nature of the hazard. Air misses involve a higher risk of death, compared with injury, than the hazards of road traffic or even sea traffic. Further, there is an increasing number of people travelling by air, and that number is bound to increase in the years ahead. The air space of these islands is limited, air traffic routes are becoming more crowded and aircraft speeds have increased and are increasing.

My first point, therefore, is to say emphatically that no one, certainly no Minister, wishes to minimise the importance of these risks or to be in any way complacent about taking the fullest precautions against the possibility of collision in mid-air.

My second point will emerge, I hope, when I have dealt with the first, which is that we should all avoid the temptation to sensationalise the facts, thus creating unnecessary alarm beyond the point of unceasing vigilance.

My hon. Friend has again mentioned his concern, which he expressed in two Questions to which I replied the other day, about recent mid-air near collisions Indeed, two air misses have recently been reported. One took place in mid-Atlantic last July and the other on 11th November in the Epsom area. The second is now the subject of investigation by the Chief Inspector of Accidents. I gave the House details of these incidents in answers recently to Questions tabled by my hon. Friend. I should, however, like to set these incidents against the background of what is being done to ensure safety of movement in the air space for which the United Kingdom Government are responsible.

I cannot, in the time available tonight, describe in detail the air traffic system and the system of navigational aids which guide the movement of aircraft in this country. We have a National Air Traffic Control Service which is jointly civil and military and makes use of both civil and military equipments. The basic means of providing safe operation is by advance planning and by air traffic control based on flight progress forecasts kept up to date by reports in flight. Increasing use is made of radar, both civil and military, and 1,500 controllers operate the system. I believe that most pilots would express their appreciation of the standard of service that they receive from British controllers and agree that our standards bear comparison with standards in any other part of the world.

I should like to refer the House to some figures relating to the movements of public transport aircraft in this country. I shall take the period from 1963, the first complete year covered by the present reporting system for air miss incidents. First, there have been no collisions involving public transport aircraft in that period. Second, of the reports received over the period, there have been 34 incidents assessed as involving actual risk, or an average of about five a year. The numbers are too small to be statistically significant, but they show that there was no pattern of growth from year to year in the last seven years; nor, incidentally, do the total number of incidents reported, notwithstanding that the total of air transport movements in this country grew from about 480,000 in 1962 to more than 610,000 in 1969. Over the same period there were seven mid-air collisions involving civil aircraft other than public transport aircraft, and of the reports received, 57 incidents were assessed as involving actual risk to civil aircraft other than public transport aircraft.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

I presume that my hon. Friend has taken note of the fact that both B.A.L.P.A. and the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations feel that many of these reports tend to understate the true number of air misses?

Mr. Roberts

I would not agree with my hon. Friend. I have gone into this very carefully, and as objectively as possible, because, like my hon. Friend, and indeed everybody else, I am deeply concerned about the dangers inherent in the situation. I do not minimise them for a moment. I shall come to the matter of reports by pilots. I do not accept what my hon. Friend has said as necessarily being the true position.

I do not want the House to think that there is any complacency in any quarter, ministerial or otherwise, about this problem, and I assure my hon. Friend that there is none in my Department. None of us would for a moment wish to leave the matter where the figures—7 and 34, against a background of 610,000 movements—might lead us to leave it. We would not be justified in leaving the matter there. We may be thankful that the number of incidents of actual risk is so small, but we should be all the more determined to reduce it and, so far as is humanly possible, to eliminate it.

What steps are being taken to achieve this? Are we doing all that we can? First, let me emphasise the continuous and independent study which is given to the problem. Air misses are of great significance as pointers to ways in which aircraft operation, air traffic control, pilot training, and navigational systems may be improved in order to maintain and improve the safety level in relation to the growing amount of air traffic using our air space. These very incidents have the seeds of present and future improvements in precautionary measures; so we naturally attach the greatest importance to investigating reports and taking practicable measures if there are lessons to be learned from them.

The system depends on getting reports of incidents. In the first place these can come only from pilots. With the support of the airlines and the British Air Line Pilots Association, we therefore encourage pilots to report all incidents where they think there was any possibility whatever that a risk of collision existed or might have existed. There is, I am glad to say, a very good response, and reports come in over a wide range, from pilots of light civil aircraft to the captains of civil and military four-engined jets.

I do not accept that these reports underestimate the actual or potential risk inherent in the incidents which they describe. Naturally, in these circumstances, one would expect that a good number would prove on investigation that no risk had in fact existed. That is the position. The great majority of these reports, after being stringently scrutinised according to a procedure which I hope I can describe later, reveal that no risk attended the incident. Nevertheless, even from reports of non-risk accidents, lessons can be learned and they are all studied to seek possible improvements. This applies even to incidents where absolutely no risk was found, because they may still reveal where conditions can be improved to prevent what might be serious occurrences.

I would emphasise how important it is to secure a sufficient number of reports in order to get useful information, and I would repeat how well pilots are supporting the effort. Incidentally, this is why it has not been the practice to publish details of particular air misses, since we feel that to do so could inhibit the full and frank flow of information on this to the authorities.

The system works in this way. As soon as a report is received, inquiries are set on foot by the National Air Traffic Control Service to trace and identify aircraft, where necessary; to obtain statements from those concerned, whether pilots or air traffic control officers or others; and to collate this information. If the initial reports show a clear need for urgent action, this is, of course, taken straight away without waiting for the completion of the full information. The information is then brought together for consideration by the Air Miss Working Group. This meets under a chairman who is a qualified military pilot and consists of representatives from B.E.A.—and B.O.A.C. is represented through the presence of B.E.A.— B.A.L.P.A., the International Air Transport Association—I.A.T.A.—the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, the General Aviation Safety Committee, the Royal Navy, the Flight Safety Directorate of the Ministry of Defence, and the Directorate of Flying of the Ministry of Technology, with advisers present from N.A.T.C.S. and Eurocontrol.

The Air Miss Working Group meets regularly to review the air misses, assess the degree of risk, determine their causes, comment on remedial action, determine trends and make recommendations. The reports and recommendations are used as one of the bases for any further action required.

I hope what I have said will show that the organisation for obtaining and acting on air miss reports is thorough and effective. In one respect it is revolutionary—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, wihout Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to One o'clock.

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