HC Deb 20 July 1981 vol 9 cc21-6 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. John Biffen)

I wish to make a statement on the accident to Dan-Air Boeing 727 G-BDAN at Tenerife on 25 April.

An agreed English translation of the report of the Spanish commission of investigation into the tragic accident to a Dan-Air Boeing 727 at Tenerife on 25 April 1980 is to be published today in Spain and in the United Kingdom.

The House will recall that the accident has already been the subject of two separate statements made by my predecessor last year on 28 April and 10 June. Even so, I think it appropriate to make a further statement in the light of the published report.

The accident, the worst in the history of British aviation, has been the subject of an exhaustive investigation in which my Department's accidents investigation branch and the American National Transportation Safety Board actively participated. There was a full and free exchange of information between the United Kingdom investigators and the Spanish commission of inquiry.

Briefly, the accident followed an ambiguous radio transmission to the aircraft from Tenerife air traffic control. That resulted in the commander becoming disorientated and caused him to turn the aircraft towards an area of high ground.

The Spanish report places responsibility for the accident firmly on the aircraft commander. Although it is true that final responsibility for maintaining a safe altitude must always rest with the commander, the report seriously understates those inadequacies of the Spanish air traffic control organisation which contributed to the accident. I have, therefore, decided that an addendum should be published to the report which sets out the following additional points that need to be made in order to achieve a balanced assessment of what happened.

First, the information transmitted by Spanish air traffic control about the holding pattern at a particular radio beacon was ambiguous and contributed directly to the disorientation of the crew. The transmission by the commander that the aircraft was taking up a holding position at that radio beacon was acknowledged by air traffic control, and not queried. That amounted to a tacit approval of the action proposed by the commander and implied that it was what air traffic control required.

Secondly, on the basis of the standards set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the United Kingdom investigators consider that the minimum safe altitudes for entry into, and holding in, the pattern at the beacon in question are 2,000 ft and 1,000 ft higher respectively than the figures produced by the Spanish authorities. It became apparent during the investigation that no minimum safe altitudes had been calculated prior to the accident. As no holding pattern at that beacon had been published, the crew understandably accepted air traffic control clearance to descend on the assumption that those calculations had been made. If that clearance had not been given, the aircraft could have been expected to have maintained height and the accident would not have occurred.

Finally, the safe theoretical aircraft track for the area portrayed in the Spanish report is not practicable. An aircraft would not be able to fly around the sharp angles drawn. A more realistic track would take the aircraft towards the area of high ground to the south west of the airfield. That factor must be taken into account when calculating minimum safe altitudes.

I am sorry that it has not been possible to reach full agreement with the Spanish authorities on the importance of those three points, and that the addendum has therefore been felt necessary. The Spanish authorities have agreed to attach the addendum to their report.

I am sure that both sides of the House will once again wish to join me in expressing Parliament's distress at this tragic accident, and our greatest sympathy to the relations and friends of all those who were killed.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition join him in expressing condolences to all those bereaved as a result of this appalling tragedy? Is he aware also that we believe that he and the accidents investigation branch are to be applauded for insisting on publication of the addendum, for the sake of fairness and accuracy, and to rectify grave inconsistencies between the findings and conclusions in the report, there being no suggestion in the conclusions of any culpabilty on the part of the air traffic controllers, despite strong evidence to that effect in the findings?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is appropriate to raise a series of further grossly disturbing features that have accompanied the report, to prevent their recurrence? First, there was the undesirability of the leakage by the Spanish authorities of portions of the report. Secondly, there were the baseless allegations by them of political interference by the British Government, and, by implication, the accidents investigation branch, in the investigations. Will he convey to the Spanish Government the view, which I am sure is held by all sections of the House, that such actions impair the impartiality that is an essential prerequisite if there is to be effective co-operation in accident investigation work, not only with our branch, but with organisations throughout the world?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say what specific lessons are to be learnt from the tragedy, and whether he believes that any recommendations should be made for action by the ICAO.? Does he agree that the report reinforces the view that a clear burden lies on air traffic control to be explicit and unambiguous, especially where a familiar routine is disrupted or an unusual holding pattern is issued at short notice?

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the desirability of having radar installed, which at least diminishes the scope for error by air traffic controllers? It might have averted the catastrophe had the controllers had a better picture of the position.

Has the right hon. Gentleman received any message from the Spanish authorities about whether any remedial action is being taken at a time when hundreds of British passengers are going to Spain on their holidays, so that there is no possibility of that situation occurring again?

Mr. Biffen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for many of his remarks, especially his kind reference to the accidents investigation branch and the importance of publishing the addendum so that we may have a fully balanced view of the evidence.

The question of using radar was raised on both previous occasions when a statement was made from the Dispatch Box about the crash. I am advised that the absence of radar is not thought to be a material factor to the tragedy.

On the question of the safety of Spanish airports and holiday traffic, a study of the report and the addendum will show that the problems were essentially those of human error, rather than of any alleged mechanical defect. That should be placed on record, in view of the possible anxieties of those who are travelling to the Mediterranean.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I intend to have discussions about the premature disclosure of the report and other closely related matters. It is my intention to approach General Iniquez, the Director General of Air Transport, to ascertain whether he can help in explaining how there was early release of the Spanish report and of the cockpit voice recorder tapes, which featured subsequently. These matters fall within Spanish sovereignty, and we must proceed with the proper proprieties. I have deferred making an approach until after my statement, because I believe that it will be helpful if I can indicate that the sentiments that I express are widely shared in the House. The same goes for the more general discussion about what action can be taken to profit from this miserably unhappy affair.

I propose to discuss with the Civil Aviation Authority an approach to the International Civil Aviation Organisation with a view to discussing with the Spanish authorities what improvements in aircraft procedures might be undertaken in the light of the Tenerife report and its addendum.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

It is crystal clear that the first and fundamental cause of the accident was inadequate air traffic control procedures on the Spanish side. As the Spanish inquiry fails to bring that out, how can anyone rely on a nation that is not interested in a full and impartial inquiry to bring out all the relevant facts taking the necessary action to prevent this sort of thing happening again?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that the addendum will bear out what my hon. Friend has said. It will bear out human frailties rather than mechanical failure.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the sense of outrage felt by the dependants of those who lost their lives in this tragedy over the report brought back by two distinguished visitors who visited the site on 12 March of this year, about 12 months after the crash took place, that clothing, handbags, suitcases, shoes and debris were still strewn about the site? That appalling insensitivity must be brought to the attention of the Spanish authorities.

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says. He speaks not only with feeling, but with a record of deep involvement in the tragedy since it occurred. I think that he will accept that the factors that he has described do not fall within the ambit of the investigation.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the human frailties to which he referred have involved the deaths of many hundreds at Tenerife airport? The ambiguities of instructions issued by the air traffic control authorities have resulted in the world's worst air accidents occurring at that airport. Does he agree that it would be wise to contact the Spanish Government immediately and ask them to ensure that the air traffic controllers issue only set instructions, and do not use their imagination, which is what is costing lives? Finally, I suggest that my right hon. Friend should consult the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, which has compiled a record of bad practices in the maintenance of the limited landing aids that are available at Tenerife airport.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says. It is important to keep in mind that some of the other tragic air accidents that have occurred at Tenerife airport have not necessarily been the occasions of failings on the part of the air traffic control. I do not think that we necessarily improve our case by overstating it. I shall ensure that the other matters to which my hon. Friend referred are brought to the attention of the Spanish authorities when I make my approach to them.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshaw)

It is made pikestaff plain in the United Kingdom accredited representative's addendum that, without his quite severely critical comments, the Spanish report is neither balanced nor acceptable. Ought not the addendum to be used to secure urgent reconsideration of the recommendations on page 29 of the report? Is not this a striking example of the case for a standing international commission to investigate all air disasters? What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to advise families that may be considering legal proceedings in Spain? Is it not time that the Government gave official advice about the comparative safety at least of European airports to those who travel to and from them?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman will know that air safety is primarily the function of the CAA. I believe that the system that it operates involves an assessment of each airport according to its particular characteristics. It does not involve the league table approach that is sometimes advocated. None the less, it is a system that commands wide public support in the United Kingdom. It is a long-established practice that the published evidence and conclusions resulting from investigations into accidents are held not to be available for legal preceedings.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those who have been rising in their places to question the Secretary of State.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Bristol, North-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has been suggested that 15 months is an inordinately long time for the inquiry? Does he agree that by world standards that is about average? Secondly, does he agree also that in the premature statements and disclosures it was regrettable that the Spanish authorities saw fit to blame pilot error for the cause of the accident, before any investigation had taken place, and that, by world standards, this is something that should not be allowed to happen?

Mr. Biffen

If the Spanish authorities attributed the accident to pilot error before ever an investigation had been undertaken, that was profoundly regrettable. I have no reason to believe that the authorities made such an allegation, although I can well understand that there was press speculation in Spain to that effect. Although the time taken for the investigation may seem to many to have been inordinate, it is by no means unusual.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the families of the crew were deeply affronted by the suggestion that the crew were responsible for the accident, and that those families will welcome the addendum? As this is the second major accident at Tenerife airport in which failure to communicate has been a strong contributory cause, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Spanish authorities are doing enough to ensure that their air traffic controllers use only acceptable international phrases and adhere to the proper procedures?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comment about the role of the addendum in enabling the relatives of the pilot and crew to feel that there has been some equity and justice in the inquiry. I realise that without it there would have been a strong sense of injustice. I have to recognise that the matters raised in the second part of the hon. Lady's question are essentially within the authority of the CAA. That is why I am suggesting that, in the light of the report, it might approach the International Civil Aviation Organisation with the object of reviewing the procedures that have been operating at Tenerife. At the end of the day, however, we must recognise that these are matters essentially within Spanish sovereignty.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in all grave accidents of this kind—which, fortunately, do not happen very often—there ought to be a more independent form of inquiry? Does he agree also that one of the reasons why this matter has taken so long is that the Spanish authorities were involved in it themselves? Should there not be international discussions on this issue?

Mr. Biffen

I shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion, but I should have thought that, almost to a man and woman in the House, there would be a belief that our accidents investigation branch is without equal. If one deserts the existing standards, one has to be certain that the replacement will be every bit as acceptable.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

I thank my right hon. Friend for publishing the addendum. In an emotional atmosphere, it is a very valuable addendum to have. It confirms the generally held view about evasion on the part of the Spanish authorities. Will my right hon. Friend therefore use this small opportunity in the House to underline to the Spanish authorities, when he sees or speaks to them, the sense of outrage that has arisen as a result of their performance in this case? Will he outline to them that the attitude of British travellers to Spain will depend very much on the behaviour of the Spanish authorities in the future?

Mr. Biffen

I have no doubt that British travellers and British tourist organisations will make their own judgments, and, in a sense, their own representations to the Spanish authorities about what accidents of this kind do for tourist business between the two countries. I must proceed on the assumption that there is good faith in these matters, even though there is a difference of interpretation in commonly accepted data. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to proceed in that fashion and therefore tailor my language accordingly, in the hope that it will be none the less effective.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me, on behalf of the relatives of the dead commander of the aircraft, their thanks for his probity and courage in publishing the addendum to the inquiry? It will go some way towards relieving the deep pain, even if it cannot relieve it entirely. There has been great anxiety, and they have been put to some expense in trying to commission their own independent inquiry, in view of the widespread suspicions about the lack of progress and the direction that the original inquiry was seen to take.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for putting the matter in such generous and personal terms, but I suggest that the House of Commons would not have been prepared to accept anything less than the report plus the addendum.

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