HC Deb 25 July 1973 vol 860 cc1632-44

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Walthamstow, East)

May I ask, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how much time I am to have?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

I think it would be for the convenience of the House if the first three debates lasted 35 minutes each, or as near that as hon. Members can make it.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the question of airline safety. I am naturally disappointed that more of my colleagues are not here to join in, but I look forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit), who so long served as an airline pilot.

My reason for asking for this debate is that at this time of year hundreds of thousands of British people fly off on holiday. I suppose that everyone who goes in an airliner feels, at least as the aircraft starts to taxi out, butterflies of uncertainty, and wonders whether his flight will be the unlucky one that will result in fatalities and injuries.

This year has been important for civil aviation because two reports relating to flight safety have been published. One was the report of the inquiry into the Trident crash at Staines in June 1972, when 118 people were killed. It was the worst crash ever in the United Kingdom. The second was the report by the committee under Group Captain Douglas Bader into pilot fatigue, a report which had perhaps as its complement a similar document from the British Airline Pilots Association.

Flying is one of the safest forms of travel known to man. Although we may each have that moment of doubt that our flight will be the unlucky one, I understand from statistics in The Times that the chances of our being among the fatal casualties are 175,000 to 1. Odds of that sort should not give us a moment's doubt about the safety of the aircraft we are in. Yet the fact is that air crashes, whenever and wherever they occur, make headline news around the world. Perhaps it is because the crash of a civil airliner so often involves a great number of deaths and injuries and because we can identify with the casualties.

Therefore, although the odds may be so great against our being involved in a crash, the fact that there are crashes requires that we should continuously consider whether the air safety measures employed by the airlines and those who run air traffic control and all the other systems at an airport are adequate in this day and age, when more and more airliners are flying and more and more people are flying in them.

There are three main causes of accidents—pilot failure, aircraft failure and the failure of airports and air traffic control systems. Yet last year when we first heard stories about flight captains going to sleep on the flight deck of their aircraft, we were inclined to dismiss them as the sort of gimmicky tales that so often find their way into the national Press. if we had looked back to 1966, we should have found that the flight safety officer of the Board of Trade had produced a most detailed report on the question of pilot fatigue and flight times. Yet for some reason that report received so little attention in the airlines that when the question was revived last year there was some doubt whether this was a gimmick subject. Now we know from the Bader Committee's report and from BALPA's report that pilot fatigue is a very serious danger that confronts any pilot who is asked to do more than a certain number of hours on the flight deck. If BALPA is to be believed, at least six accidents relating to United Kingdom aircraft were caused by that source.

Admittedly, Group Captain Bader is not prepared to state that he knows of an accident caused by pilot fatigue, but he is willing to agree that pilot fatigue can so reduce the mental alertness of a pilot as to be a contributory factor. Indeed, in his report he produces what he considers to be the right working hours for a pilot. I merely mention them because they are part of the very important recommendations in the report. Group Captain Bader states that there should be an annual limit of 900 flying hours per pilot, in any calendar period of 12 months. He gives a table of minimum rest periods, which I understand has been accepted by the CAA, which set up the committee. He also makes a suggestion for a flight time limitation board to operate in an advisory capacity to the CAA, and suggests that the board should have on it representatives of the airlines and the pilots and an aeromedical specialist.

Although I welcome the Bader report, I have to repeat that I find myself wondering why pilot fatigue has only now been recognised as the danger that it has clearly been for so many years. Why, by the same token, are we not yet in a position to persuade pilots to report all the incidents that take place on the flight deck and might give a clue either to their own mental alertness or to that of their colleagues? As I understand it, the reason is a feeling that it might produce the belief that they were somehow falling down on the job or were spying on those with whom they worked. That is a pity. Until we have incident reporting not only if an aircraft is involved in a near-miss accident but also of what happens on the flight deck, we shall not guarantee to pick up the pilot who is overstressed and deserves to be rested.

Pilot fatigue leads to pilot error, and pilot error was a contributory factor to the crash of the Trident at Staines last year. As I have said, 118 people, passengers and crew, died. Why someone as experienced as the pilot of that aircraft should have made the mistake that he did in retracting the leading edge droops we shall never be able to say. But the point in the report of the inquiry on which we ought to spend a little time about is wondering how three similar incidents, which fortunately did not cause a crash in which passengers were killed, should have been allowed to happen without there being the most rigorous examination of the controls of the aircraft, how such an accident could happen, and whether any change should be made in the way the aircraft was operated. After all, the level that controls the droops is one of the most crucial instruments in the cockpit of the aircraft and there is little doubt its premature retraction caused the accident.

We also know that Captain Key, the Trident's captain, was a sick man with a serious heart condition. It is, perhaps, not unreasonable to wonder how a man with that heart condition could be the captain of a passenger aircraft taking over 100 people out of London. One must wonder whether the medical tests to which pilots are being subjected are adequate to uncover heart conditions of that kind.

I strongly recommend to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that there should be the most strenuous examinations of the tests currently being employed and that the rather curious statement in the report, that when it becomes more reliable the stress test electro-cardiogram should be substituted for the "resting" ECG, needs not only explanation but, perhaps, further action to bring this reliability into being as soon as possible.

The other cause of that accident was the inability—for that is all that we can say for certain—of the second and third pilots to carry out the safety procedures which British European Airways prided itself were such as to avoid that sort of crash. One must wonder why that was so. How was it that after years of training those two pilots did not respond to the various warning signs that were given by the aircraft's controls that it was in a dangerous situation? One must wonder, also, whether such a situation could happen again, to the extent that a highly experienced 50-year-old captain could find himself flying with two very young men, in their early twenties, who, put in such an emergency, were unable to take the right action.

It is not enough for the inquiry report to say that it was "bad luck" that Senior Officer Keighley was flying as No. 2. It is not a question of luck that we are concerned about, but of safety. Luck surely should not be part of the safety techniques on an airliner's flight deck.

I must ask my hon. Friend whether he is now firmly convinced, first, that any incidents relating to the possibility of an accident as serious as could have happened with the droop retraction on the Trident—and did happen in June last year—would be picked up by the monitoring system which I understand the British Airways Board claims to have introduced since the crash?

I must also ask my hon. Friend whether he is firmly convinced that in future on the flight deck of one of the airliners operated by the British Airways Board one could not find such a mix of old men and young men, so that even if the young men knew what to do they might be overawed by the fact of having such an experienced captain as the No. 1 and, perhaps, might wonder—if one assumes for the moment that the captain was ill rather than dead—whether he was carrying out the right routine and that it was not for them to query what he was doing.

I should like to touch on the question of the noise abatement procedures, which are also considered to have been a contributory factor in the crash. I understand that these procedures have now been severely revised to the extent that the safety margin has been greatly increased. But perhaps the time has come for the noise abatement procedures to be dropped altogether. Perhaps what we should be doing is encouraging those who operate our aircraft to get them off and out of the airspace of the airfield and up to their cruising height as quickly as possible thus increasing the safety margin enormously without extending the noise footprint to any great extent. The noise abatement procedures are considered by many to provide only minimal relief anyway. This would seem to be a method of increasing safety with no great loss to the environment.

Lastly, before leaving the Trident accident, I want to refer to two remarks made to me by a number of British airline pilots. They said this, and I think that these words are worth noting: Airlines should never allow themselves to believe that dinning set procedures into young pilots will train them to do the right thing in an emergency. What matters is that the pilots understand the procedures and have had experience of using them in the air.

The second point these pilots made, and a point which also relates to the Trident crash, is that pilot morale is as important as the good health of those who fly the planes. Therefore, pilots' relationships with their management play an important part in their overall wellbeing. A happy pilot is a good pilot. Alas, as we know, Captain Key had been involved in a row just before that aircraft took off and, as we also know, graffiti was found in the cockpit of the aeroplane, suggesting that perhaps the morale amongst some of the pilots was not what it might have been.

Having touched on those two reports and their recommendations, I want briefly to touch on the safety record of Britain's independent airlines. In May of this year the magazine Flight produced an article in which it showed by its own index that Britain came out about ninth in the world air safety league, that the two State airlines enjoyed the better of the safety records, and that the independent airlines suffered between 1963 and 1972 60 per cent. of the accidents while carrying about 25 per cent. of the traffic. Although the article specifically makes it clear that some of the famous names like British Caledonian, Laker and Court Line have never had a fatality, the thought is left that some of the other independents do not have the safety performance that we should expect of them. I therefore wonder whether the Civil Aviation Authority would be justified in setting up an inquiry into the safety standards of independent airlines to check why this statistic should be held against them.

For instance, in the last 14 years 14 or 15 charter aircraft have flown into high ground with the loss of 600 people, and only last March 104 persons died in the crash of a Vanguard aircraft which flew into a mountainside near the airport at Basle. The passengers were all ladies on a one-day charter flight to Switzerland. Although I know that we are still waiting for the report of the Swiss court of inquiry, I am wondering why, when weather conditions were so bad at the airport, the pilot was not diverted to another.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Cranley Onslow)

May 1 point out to my hon. Friend that he is raising a number of points which I am very anxious to answer and which I shall need to answer fairly fully. We are at half-time already.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think I should reinforce the point that the Minister has drawn attention to, which is that the debate is due to finish at 13.20. Even with the allowance of a few extra minutes, it will not be easy to contain it. I understand that the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit) has a small share in the debate.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I will heed your warning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and do my best to draw my remarks to a close in the next seven minutes.

Is there any substance in suggestions which have been made to me that charter aircraft operators operate on such narrow profit margins that the pilot is almost bound to try to get into the airfield—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Did I hear the hon. Gentleman aright? Did he say that he would try to conclude his remarks in seven minutes? It is not for the Chair, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes an answer from the Minister he must allow the Minister some time in which to make a reply.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I take all your remonstrances in very good part, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I find it rather hard that the 60 minutes that I had been allotted by Mr. Speaker for this debate have been reduced to 35 minutes. However, I will do my best to bring my remarks to a close as quickly as I can.

Is it the case that those operating this type of flight find themselves bound to operate into an airfield even if the weather conditions are bad, simply because to divert could damage the profitability of the operation? If this is so, should not the Civil Aviation Authority insist that such airline operators insure themselves against such an eventuality?

Then there is the question whether the profitability of airlines generally is weighed against the safety measures used on an airline. The British Air Line Pilots Association has a sneaking feeling that this is so. It makes the point that the inability or refusal on economic grounds of an airline to invest in crew training and flight simulators, navigation aids, flight data recorders and any other equipment that could improve the efficiency of their flight crews and the safety of their aircraft threatens the safety record of the airline and the lives of those who are flying in the aircraft. In those circumstances, does the Civil Aviation Authority have sufficient power to insist on safety measures? Is it fully aware of the financial circumstances of all airlines operating out of this country? Is the position as Flight stated on 19th April— British airlines still do not have to disclose their accounts—capital and operating—in any meaningful detail. Just one word about air traffic control. Near misses are a constant source of worry in safety terms. Too many aeroplanes fly over the centre of London for any of us to feel easy when we hear that the Mediator air traffic control system is not operating at 100 per cent. efficiency. What is being done to improve that system?

Lastly, has my hon. Friend heard the fear which I have heard expressed that Runway 23 at London Airport—the north-south runway—is considered by many pilots to have a dangerous approach, to be too short, and to be so badly drained that the danger of aquaplaning is an ever-present threat to safety?

I close with one sentence from Lord Boyd-Carpenter. He wrote this in The Times in February: Even one accident is one accident too many.

1.17 p.m.

Mr. Norman Tebbit (Epping)

I shall be extremely brief. I have the greatest sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson), to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for this debate. My hon. Friend has raised many points to which I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will want to reply and I shall not raise any new points to concern him.

It is unusual that we debate air safety except in the light of a disaster. I shall confine my remarks solely to those aspects of the work of the Civil Aviation Authority which I think we should note. At this early stage of the work of the authority under Lord Boyd-Carpenter we should recognise the extent to which it has moved on safety problems, pilot' fatigue, the carriage of flight data recorders, and the carriage of cockpit voice recorders, all of which will make a considerable contribution to safety.

I shall write to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the other matters which I should have liked to raise with him. I hope that he and the House will accept that on this last day of term it is appropriate for us to make a couple of school-report type remarks. The first I would make is to the British airline industry, saying, "Good progress, but you could do better." Secondly, I would say to Lord Boyd-Carpenter, "An excellent start. We look forward to seeing far more of your work in the future."

1.9 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Cranley Onslow)

I am sure that nobody will be more grate- ful than our former right hon. Friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for the advice which my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit) tendered, and I am certain that Lord Boyd-Carpenter will take due note of it.

The House must be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson) for initiating this debate. When he reads the report of his remarks in the OFFICIAL REPORT he will see that he has given me a deal to answer in 10 minutes. Therefore, I shall crack on.

Since 1st April of last year the responsibility for safety matters has been that of the Civil Aviation Authority and not directly of my Department, nor, incidentally, that of the British Air Line Pilots Association. Anybody who has any concern about air safety matters is free to go to talk to Lord Boyd-Carpenter about them.

I wish that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East had spoken to Lord Boyd-Carpenter, because some of the things that he said today were more likely to frighten airline passengers than to reassure them. That is a pity because, as he said, this is the height of the travel season and we do not merely want to travel hopefully; we want to arrive. I have no doubt that British airlines will take good care of us and get us to our destinations, whether those airlines are independent or nationalised.

To come to the nuts and bolts of the matter, airworthiness and safety matters are a Civil Aviation Authority responsibility, and that authority is constantly trying to improve standards by inspection of a physical kind and by concentrating much more on flight deck work rather than on paper work, and also—I take this opportunity to stress this fact —by concentrating on the financial aspect. The Edwards Committee stressed that it believed that there was a possible connection between financial soundness and safety, and the Civil Aviation Authority has this point very much in mind, though it was wrong of my hon. Friend to suggest that because an operator falls into some kind of difficulty and has an accident this implies that he is financially unsound. There is no substance in the suggestion, and if my hon. Friend has any doubt I hope he will talk to the Civil Aviation Authority about it and, having done that, I hope he will come back and say what the Authority has told him.

Although there cannot be any cause for complacency, there is no need for alarmism. The Flight statistics to which my hon. Friend drew attention were alarmist. They were also—Flight admitted this—statistically unsound. What they ignored was the significant factor, which is the trend. Statistics can be made to prove many things, but what one needs to find out is what is going to happen and not what has happened. 1 remember my hon. Friend the Member for Epping and his analogy of the tadpole and the whale in the context of what can be misproved by statistics.

The statistics for fatal accidents per 100,000 stage flights on passenger-carrying services, on five-year moving averages, from 1963 to 1967, indicate 0.30 for scheduled airlines, and in 1968–72 it is down to 0.23. On the non-scheduled transport—that is, the independents—in the same period the rate has improved from 1.15 for 1963–67 to 0.20 for 1968–72, which gives a better safety record to the independent airlines than to the national airlines or, rather, to the non-scheduled than to the scheduled. This is a significant point which has to be borne in mind. The United Kingdom total average compares favourably with the figures for other countries, and I hope very much that we shall not allow the debate to proceed on the basis of false statistics.

My hon. Friend reminded the House of the Trident accident and, as one who was on the scene of that tragic disaster within an hour or so of its happening, I can tell him that I have been determined ever since that no possible chance should be missed of making sure that the lessons were learned and that it should never happen again if it can be prevented. This spirit has animated everyone concerned with the occurrence, whether in my Department, in the airline or in the Civil Aviation Authority, and there has been the closest and most continuous scrutiny, before the Report of the Lane Commission and since, to make sure that all possible action is followed up.

It may help the House if I add one or two points to the statement which my hon. Friend made to the House on 9th May about the accident and the action which has been taken, in particular relating to four of the recommendations in the Lane Commission's findings. On the first, which had to do with the fitting of a physical baulk to prevent the retraction of the lever, I can say that the installation of this in the BEA Trident fleet has begun and it is expected to be completed by the spring of next year. In the meantime, there is a great awareness on the part of Trident pilots of the correct procedure. Training methods have been overhauled and substantially revised, and procedures have been changed in such a way that it should be impossible for a mistake of this kind to recur. The situation is one in which everything possible has been done and in which the highest levels of safety should once again prevail.

On the question of cockpit voice recorders, the Civil Aviation Authority has consulted the aviation industry about the proposal that these should be mandatory on all civil passenger-carrying aircraft of more than 27,000 kilogrammes all-up weight. The Authority is getting reactions in, and there has been fairly general support for this, although there is some difficulty about specification and installation requirements and there will need to be further discussion with everybody concerned.

In the matter of subtle as well as obvious incapacitation of a pilot, which was very much highlighted during the inquiry, the Civil Aviation Authority's Flight Operations Inspectorate has completed an examination of operators' crew training and flight procedures and has ensured that instructors take proper account of this. So there again, something has been done to meet the point.

On the question of young pilots, and particularly the action taken by BEA, I can tell my hon. Friend that the airline has introduced procedures to give young pilots more experience as observers on the flight deck before they operate as P2 on passenger-carrying flights. The Flight Operations Inspectorate has reviewed with all United Kingdom airlines their rules on minimum experience for co-pilots. Therefore, action is being taken, and I hope that this will reassure my hon. Friend.

With regard to electro-cardiograms, I am sorry that my hon. Friend has overlooked what was said at the time of the statement on 9th May, and 1 direct his attention to the OFFICIAL REPORT for that day, particularly to col. 496, where he will find that what he describes as a rather ambiguous statement is considerably clarified.

Mr. McNair-Wilson


Mr. Onslow

No, I cannot give way, I have but four minutes left in which to deal with the rest of what the hon. Gentleman said.

It is worth stressing that the Civil Aviation Authority's action in connection with the Bader Report is a useful follow up to the Trident inquiry. In fairness to its comments on BALPA's findings, it is right to say that the words were: on the evidence we received we were unable to decide whether fatigue had caused any accident to a United Kingdom registered aircraft in recent years. The Bader Committee took evidence from BALPA as well, so that an impartial assessment of BALPA's findings tends to put it in a lower key and in a more accurate way.

One of the most significant steps taken has been to make incident and defect reporting mandatory. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping and I have campaigned for this in the past, and we are both delighted that it should be so.

There has certainly been a thoroughgoing review of noise abatement procedures by the Civil Aviation Authority, but there is nothing in the Lane Commission Report to suggest that there was anything necessarily wrong with the safety measures.

Mr. Tebbit


Mr. Onslow

I am sorry; this will have to be the subject of correspondence.

It may be that the safety margins could be made greater by changing the procedures, but it does not mean that the margins which are applied are unsafe. I know that pilots have a preference for getting off the ground as quickly as they can, but there might be consequences on the noise front if they simply blasted off into the sky. I have to admit this in a somewhat reluctant sense because while I have a responsibility to see that people get the greatest protection from the adverse effects of aircraft noise, it comes up against the overwhelming requirement to put safety first. I am more anxious than ever that aviation should be safe and should be accepted as safe. One of the measures which occur to me is the two-segment approach. The Civil Aviation Authority is looking at this, but nobody is under any illusion about the need to put safety first. This is the message which I address to the House.

We shall, I hope, have an opportunity in due course to debate air safety in circumstances which are not associated with accidents and disasters. My hon. Friend was right to make that point. We look forward to the first report of the CAA, which should be available later this year. I know, meanwhile, that the authority is doing a great deal to raise the standards of safety in British civil aviation and I am sure that it has the wholehearted support of the House. I am sure, too, that it is as anxious as I am that its work should be known. I therefore repeat my suggestion that anyone who has doubts about air safety should talk to the authority and I echo my hon. Friend's thought that it is not the glamour of the air hostesses or the excellence of the food or the modernity of the equipment which makes us willing passengers but the knowledge that we can fly safely. I believe that on British airlines we can.