HC Deb 28 April 1980 vol 983 cc982-90
The Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. John Nott)

With permission Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Tenerife air crash.

The House will be aware that on Friday last a Boeing 727 operated by Dan-Air Services Ltd. from Manchester to Tenerife crashed about 10 miles from its destination and all the 146 passengers and crew on board were killed. I am sure that all sides of the House will wish to join me in expressing Parliament's great distress at this tragic accident and our greatest sympathy to the relations and friends of all those who were killed.

The accident occurred after the crew had reported when the aircraft was at 6,000 ft over a radio beacon at Los Rodeos airport on the northern end of Tenerife island, 19 minutes after 1 o'clock in the afternoon, GMT. It was then cleared by air traffic control to descend to 5,000 ft and carry out an approach procedure to the runway, but this message was not acknowledged by the aircraft and it is believed to have crashed very shortly afterwards. The accident site is about 10 miles south-west of the airport and just over 5,000 ft above sea level. The aircraft had completely disintegrated.

The Spanish authorities have begun an investigation into the circumstances and causes of the accident and a team of investigators from the accidents investigation branch of my Department arrived at 6.30 on Saturday morning and have been participating in the Spanish investigation in accordance with established international practice. The flight data and cockpit voice recorder have been recovered from the aircraft and will be carefully examined and read out in the next few days. Similarly, the recording of the radio communications will also be subject to detailed analysis. I will give more information to the House as soon as it is available. There remains much work of investigation to be done and it is expected that it will be some time before the final report of the investigation will be completed. By international agreement, a copy of the report will be passed to the State of registry of the aircraft that is, this country.

The House will wish to know that the Spanish authorities have treated this tragedy with the greatest sympathy and consideration and memorial services are being held in Tenerife today. British consular officials and members of the Dan-Air Company are doing everything in their power to assist the official services in Tenerife with their work.

Mr. John Smith

I thank the Secretary of State for making an early statement. On behalf of the Opposition, I express our sympathy with the families and relatives of those who lost their lives in this appalling tragedy. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that both the House and the public will wish the inquiry to be searching, and include consideration of the safety of the aircraft and of the air traffic control system and landing procedures at the airport?

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that there appear to have been some premature and very confusing statements about the cause of the accident, some apparently by the airline concerned as to where the aircraft was heading at the time of the accident, and others about pilot error, which must be far too premature? Will he ensure that the inquiry will cover all these matters?

I note that the Secretary of State said that the final report could not be expected for several months. That will take us to near the end of the holiday season. As a large number of British citizens are likely to travel to this airport, will the right hon. Gentleman examine the possibility of the report being completed at an earlier date, or of some interim report being made available so that some conclusions might be drawn in order to ensure that paramount consideration— the safety of the air passengers?

Mr. Nott

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the report needs to be of a searching character. There were, understandably, a number of rather confusing statements made in various quarters when news of the accident first came through. That is not entirely surprising.

It is true that the formal report will take some time to prepare and to be made available, but I undertake that we will keep the House informed by a statement as soon as we have additional information which is of great interest and concern to both sides of the House.

Mr. Montgomery

I am sure that my right hon. Friend expresses the sympathy of every hon. Member over this terrible tragedy. Has he noticed the reports that have emanated from the Spanish authorities putting the blame on the pilot? As this man was an extremely experienced pilot, and as he is not here to defend himself, will my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a great deal better if people waited until after the full investigation before starting recriminations?

Mr. Nott

I agree that this was a very experienced crew. The pilot knew the airfield very well and had had more than 14,000 hours' flying experience. None of us questions the competence of the crew. I certainly agree that it would be much better to await further facts before making any further statements.

Mr. Alfred Morris

As a Manchester Member whose constituency adjoins Manchester airport, may I extend my deep condolences to the relatives of all who lost their lives in the disaster?

The Secretary of State said that the flight data and cockpit voice recorders would be read out in the next few days. How soon afterwards will we be told what those read-outs reveal? If, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it is a matter of some months before the final report of the investigation is completed, may we have an interim report after the flight data and cockpit voice recorders are read out?

Finally, may I thank the Secretary of State for his prompt action in sending a team of investigators to the island and in taking the earliest possible opportunity to make a statement to the House?

Mr. Nott

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. The flight data and cockpit voice recorders have both been recovered. The flight data recorder will be read out for the first time fairly shortly and I will make sure that in so far as I can provide relevant and soundly-based information to the House I shall do so, Obviously, I do not wish to commit myself to any time scale, but there is no reason to conceal anything from the House or the country as soon as we have factually-based information which we can put forward.

Mr. Churchill

May I join my right hon. Friend in expressing my deepest sympathy to the families of the passengers and crew were lost in this tragic accident, no fewer than five of whom were my constituents?

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the pitiful inadequacy of non-directional beacons, especially in the mountainous terrain and in poor weather? Will he make most strenuous and urgent representations to the Spanish civil aviation authorities to the effect that it is quite inexcusable that on an airport that is used by countless hundreds of thousands of British holiday-makers each year there should have been no airport surveillance radar, either at the airport or on Mount Teide itself? Will he further undertake to publish a safety league table in due course covering all scheduled and charter airlines operating in and from this country?

Mr. Nott

There were radio navigation aids at the airport, including a main VHF beacon, and three medium—frequency beacons of low power, together with an instrument landing system. There is surveillance radar at Las Palmas covering the whole island, but there is no local radar at the northern airfield. This is not dissimilar to the situation in many airports throughout the world which take scheduled passengers. In that respect, I do not think that my hon. Friend's criticism of the Spanish authorities is correct or valid. I shall look into the matter, but I do not think that a safety league table would really be of any help to the House or the country.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

I thank the Secretary of State for the speed with which he has made a statement about this tragic event. I express my condolences to those who have been so tragically bereaved, particularly the families of my constituents who were involved in this tragic accident.

Bearing in mind the history of the air tragedies and disasters which have taken place at Los Rodeos airport, would the right hon. Gentleman be justified in discouraging charter companies from using this airport, at least until we see the interim report?

Mr. Nott

Los Rodeos remains an approved airport and has a very long runway which, when used in the proper circumstances, is as safe as any other. The accident site lies between the two airports and not within the approach pattern to the northern airport. Of course, I am aware of the major accident that occurred on the ground at that airport a few years ago, but it is an approved airport and, if properly approached, there is no reason why there should be any danger at all.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the four hon. Members on the Government Benches and the two hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who have been rising in their places since the beginning of supplementary questions.

Mr. Onslow

I endorse my right hon. Friend's expression of sympathy for the relatives of all those involved in the tragedy, and welcome his rejection of the rather superficial suggestion of the publication of some safety league table, which most of us recognise would be irrelevant.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there will be full scope for the participation of British experts at all stages in the technical investigation? Can he tell us what scope there is in Spanish procedures for British participation in the formal inquiry itself?

Mr. Nott

British experts are, of course, present now, and they are assisting the Spanish authorities with their investigation. I am sure that my hon. Friend, having had responsibility for such matters on earlier occasions, appreciates that the prime responsibility rests with the country in whose jurisdiction the accident occurred. However, there are well established international rules which set out the means by which other countries involved may participate. Indeed, the country that manufactured the aircraft also has a part to play in the investigations, in accordance with the rules. The Spanish authorities will, I know, follow international rules in this regard.

Mr. Stephen Ross

May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate myself with the messages of sympathy that have been expressed about the disaster? It has been reported in the press that the black box has been removed and has been sent to Madrid. May we assume that the Minister's officials will be present in Madrid to hear the recording? Is it not also a fact that Los Rodeos airport will be used rather less in the future? Apparently, it has been reported that this was the last flight to use that airport and that in future the southern aerodrome will be used more extensively. Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

Mr. Nott

The flight data recorder will be read in Madrid, and officials from my Department will be present. A decision will be made tomorrow about whether the cockpit voice recorder will be read in Madrid or be sent direct to my accidents investigation branch in Farnborough, to be read first in the United Kingdom.

As the House will know, there is a new airfield on the southern side of Tenerife which no doubt will be used increasingly. However, I understand that it is still intended that Los Rodeos, the northern airfield, will remain in full use. As I have said, it is an approved airport.

Mr. McCrindle

I echo that last point, but is it not a fact that the new airport on the south side of Tenerife is reputed to be safer by international standards than Los Rodeos? Can the Secretary of State give any indication, therefore, of the date after which most of the charter flights from this country will be likely to use the new airport, because it appears that most of the difficulties that have occurred in the past in Tenerife have occurred at the older airport?

Mr. Nott

I do not think that I am sufficiently qualified to make judgments on the quality of one airport compared with another. We can only ensure that airports that are used by British scheduled aircraft and by British passengers are approved airports under the existing rules. I cannot say whether the southern airfield is better than the northern airfield, although I have read reports that it is. However, that is surmise, and I cannot confirm it or otherwise.

Mr. Dalyell

The Secretary of State pointed out, legitimately, that the facilities at Los Rodes are not very different from those of many other airports in the world. I had the unpleasant experience some years ago of being caught there in bad weather. Extremely delicate, difficult micro-climates result from Mount Teide rising from the sea in unusual geological conditions. Is it not unsatisfactory that here, of all places, there should be primitive equipment such as VHF beacons, and is there not a case for special equipment, in view of the fact that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith) pointed out, a huge number of British holidaymakers now visit Tenerife?

Mr. Nott

As I indicated in my statement, as far as we can judge, the aircraft was not on its approach to the airport. I do not think it is entirely true to say that the VHF beacon is primitive. It is a system which is in use in many parts of the world.

I cannot recall the earlier point made by the hon. Gentleman, for which I apologise.

Mr. Dalyell

Given the special nature of the climatic conditions and the microclimates at this airport, is there not a case for special provision?

Mr. Nott

The accident took place when the weather in the area was variable, with a south-easterly wind of 14 knots and a visibility of 6 km in drizzle. I understand that the airport has an elevation of just over 2,000 ft above sea level. Consequently, as cloud drifts over the high ground the visibility tends to change quickly and sometimes one end of the runway is obscured while the other end is clear.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are many airports in the world where difficult conditions exist. I do not deny that it is said by pilots that this airport is difficult in some respects.

Mr. Mellor

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and for the proper caution that he has shown in discussing the various implications of the accident. I hope to show equally proper caution in my question. Do not the records of my right hon. Friend's Department show that this is the third major air disaster affecting aircraft of this airline to be recorded since 1977? Do not his records also show that this is a far worse record than that of any other British airline, and, so far as can be seen, of any other comparable Western European airline? Does not this raise the implication that there should perhaps be a wider investigation into the operations of this airline?

Mr. Nott

There have been two fatal accidents in which this airline has been involved in the last five years—one at Sumburgh and the other at Lusaka. There have been five other minor technical accidents. The safety standards of an airline are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, through the issue of an air operator's certificate. Those are the standard procedures, and I see no reason to change them.

Mr. Colvin

I heartily endorse the words of my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon about the tragic accident. Does my right hon. Friend agree that had this aeroplane been carrying a ground proximity warning system the accident may well have been averted? Does he not also agree that for the sake of a couple of thousand pounds—which is all that these instruments cost—it is high time that moves were made to make compulsory the carrying of such instruments on civil airlines, both nationally and internationally?

Mr. Nott

This aircraft was carrying a ground proximity warning system, and there were no known defects in it when it departed from Manchester.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Ground proximity warning systems were made mandatory in 1977 in this country for British aircraft.

May I ask the Secretary of State whether the Spanish authorities have indicated that they are agreeable to the publication of an interim report, as is the clear desire of the House? If they have not so indicated, will the Secretary of State encourage them to do so?

In view of the conflicting reports, is the Secretary of State able to say, without prejudice to any question of liability, whether the aircraft had been diverted from the north to the new airport? That matter is evidently causing considerable concern.

There have been reports that a number of people—I can only describe them as ghouls—have been busy collecting pieces of the aircraft as mementoes, which can only impair the quality of the forensic investigation that has to be undertaken. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Spanish police authorities have now taken appropriate action to avoid a repetition of that?

Is the Secretary of State aware that deep concern has been expressed for many years by BALPA and the International Federation of Airline Pilots about the antiquated nature of air traffic control systems, not simply in Spain, but throughout Europe and elsewhere? Will he, therefore, use the best endeavours of his Department to ensure that this matter is more thoroughly and urgently investigated, and that action is taken wherever possible to make sure that deficiencies are put right?

Mr. Nott

I did not say that I would be able to publish an interim report. I indicated that I would certainly do my best to provide, as soon as possible, whatever information I could. That is not quite the same as an interim report, which is something to be cleared with the Spanish authorities. Certainly I shall encourage the Spanish authorities to allow us to provide here as much information as possible as soon as reasonably possible.

On the question about the diversion of the aircraft, the recording of radio communications contains no instruction to the aircraft from air traffic control to divert. Nor does it include any statement by the pilot that he intended to divert. Certainly no instructions were given.

I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said about the position on the ground. It is a matter for the Spanish police authorities and I will look into the hon. Gentleman's comments.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that air traffic control systems all over the world probably need to be brought up to date. I share his concern in that respect. We can do no more than bring ours up to date and encourage everyone else to take similar action. Of course, we shall do our best to play a leading part in that regard.