HC Deb 18 April 1988 vol 131 cc534-6
3. Mr. Battle

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he intends to make any improvements in aviation safety during the next year.

Mr. Channon

The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for regulating aviation safety. The authority will be investing £200 million over the next five years. That includes the replacement of the main air traffic control computer, which I recently approved, and the progressive introduction of a computerised air miss alert system.

Mr. Battle

In view of the recent near misses and the projected increase of air traffic over the summer holiday period, has there not been serious under-funding on computer development? Can the Minister assure the people of this country that safety will take absolute priority over competition in aviation policy?

Mr. Channon

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. As to the first part of his question concerning computers, the Government have provided the funding for which the CAA has asked. The matter is now proceeding and I hope that there will be substantial improvements.

Mr. Wilkinson

Following the near accident at Gatwick airport recently, will my right hon. Friend discuss with the CAA and the BAA the adequacy of the airport as it is presently configured? Will he consider building a proper runway there so that aircraft do not have to use the taxiway as an alternative when the main runway is closed for repair?

Mr. Channon

I shall consider that suggestion. I share hon. Members' worry about congestion in airspace in the south-east. The problem is not confined to Gatwick. I asked my officials some time ago to collaborate with the CAA and the BAA to produce a forecast of air traffic demand in the south-east and the capacity required to meet it.

Mr. Tony Banks

Is the Secretary of State completely satisfied with air safety over the new City airport, which is in the London borough of Newham? Does he agree that, to restore some public confidence in air safety over London, it would be in everybody's interests if he initiated a full public discussion, through some form of inquiry, so that representations from all interests could be made? Does he agree that public confidence might be restored in that way?

Mr. Channon

I hope that the hon. Member will play his part in restoring public confidence. The House will be aware that the number of air misses that pose a danger to the public has declined dramatically in the past few years. There were only 16 in 1986, and I should be surprised if the provisional figures for 1987, which are not yet available, showed an increase. There is a later question about London City airport, but, in case it is not reached, I should say that it is matter for the CAA, which is satisfied that the operation of the airport is safe.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at the beginning of the peak season in air travel, it is irresponsible to put about groundless scares? While near misses must always be a matter of concern, if we consider the number of passengers who are carried it is clear that air safety has improved dramatically during the past 10 years, which is contrary to the impression that getting into an aeroplane is somehow dicing with death.

Mr. Channon

I entirely agree. All the statistics bear out what my hon. Friend says. Nevertheless, I am in no way complacent about the matter. Any risk is serious. The CAA and all other relevant authorities will continue to pursue measures to make air travel even safer. I have already mentioned the new computer, and the air miss alert system is being investigated. The CAA is involved in a whole host of measures to make air travel even safer. My hon. Friend is entirely right. All the published figures and all the evidence of the past 10 years shows that the number of air misses has declined substantially.

Mr. Rees

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the appropriate authorities the curious arrangement whereby an aeroplane that is coming in to land at Gatwick in certain circumstances lands on the taxiway? Did someone plan for that, or did it have to happen because of an emergency?

Mr. Channon

The right hon. Gentleman does not put it quite fairly. The main runway is receiving necessary maintenance, which will take some time. During night hours, therefore—when the airport is less congested—the taxiway is being used. The runway must be maintained at some time. The CAA and the BAA think that this is the right time and the right way in which to do it. If either organisation or I were worried about safety, we would take measures to stop the work.

Mr. Wheeler

Bearing in mind the tragedy at Manchester, can my right hon. Friend say when he hopes the CAA will report on the specification of safety hoods?

Mr. Channon

The CAA hopes to finalise the specification for smoke hood's by the end of this month. It will then wish to consult widely other aviation authorities to establish whether it would be a good idea to make hoods mandatory.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Nobody wishes to scaremonger, but is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is widespread concern as air misses are reported almost every day? Although we appreciate the investment that the right hon. Gentleman has agreed, will he have urgent talks with the CAA and anyone else concerned to establish whether the investment can come to fruition much sooner than the five years he mentioned? It is quite clear that we cannot wait that long to get the matter right.

Mr. Channon

I am in continual touch with the CAA, which has prime responsibility for these matters. It is as anxious as I am to speed up the process as much as it possibly can to improve the main air traffic control computers. I shall continue to have discussions with the CAA.

The hon. Gentleman uncharacteristically exaggerates when he says that there is an air miss every day or so. In the past few weeks there have been approximately eight or nine incidents. We do not yet know how many of those involved risk to the general public, but the general figures do not appear to be very much out of line with what has happened in past years.