HC Deb 22 February 1988 vol 128 cc2-5
1. Mr. Wray

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority on the safety regulations for flights over London, Glasgow and Manchester.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

The regulation of air safety is the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority. The chairman keeps me informed on important issues.

Mr. Wray

Does the Secretary of State agree that we have had two near misses in the past fortnight and 365 near misses since 1986? Obviously, many complaints have been made to the Civil Aviation Authority, and air traffic controllers have complained about the reporting system. Does the Secretary of State agree that the skies have become like the A74, in that they are overcrowded, and will he consider extending the vertical and horizontal space?

Mr. Channon: The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that in recent years the number of risk-bearing air misses for commercial air transport has been decreasing, not increasing. That is important. We must not be complacent, but nor must we overreact. It is

Mr. Higgins

I accept what my right hon. Friend has said, but is he satisfied that everything is being done to encourage the reporting of these events so that we have reliable statistics? On the question of capacity, is there not an argument for having more routes, especially across the Channel, so that traffic can be more widely spread? In particular, will my right hon. Friend investigate the restrictions placed by the Ministry of Defence on Channel flying?

Mr. Channon

As my right hon. Friend knows, he and I are in discussion with the Ministry of Defence about that latter point. I do not want to raise his hopes, but obviously we shall investigate that.

It is important that the House should understand the procedures. The CAA chairman has initiated discussions of the air miss reporting and investigation system and he has invited my officials to participate. It is an extremely sensible idea and I hope that the House will welcome it.

Mrs. Ray Michie

Does the Secretary of State accept that my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party was not being alarmist when he last raised this matter on 8 February? Does he accept that we are seeking a proper investigation into what is going on? One does not want to be alarmist, but I, too, fly regularly up to and down from Scotland — [Interruption.] Flying frightens the living daylights out of me. Many people are seriously worried. If there is so much traffic in the south-east, why does the Secretary of State not accept that more planes should fly out of Prestwick, for example?

Mr. Channon

I am longing for more planes to fly out of Prestwick and every other provincial aerodrome, including Scottish ones. The more traffic that can be encouraged to do that, the better. I think that that is common ground between us. I hope the hon. Lady realises that the number of near misses on the form of transport that she is now using is going down, not up. That is the point that I must make the House understand. With respect, her right hon. Friend's speech last autumn— I cannot understand why people keep referring to it—was alarmist and irresponsible and did not take these factors into account.

Mr. McCrindle

With the incident over Essex at the weekend coming only two weeks after he announced an inquiry into the severe air miss of a couple of weeks ago, will my right hon. Friend consider extending the range of that inquiry within his Department to include the more recent incident? Taking our cue from him, and trying to keep a balance between those who wish to be alarmist and those who wish to be complacent, may we ask whether the time is not on the horizon when individual inquiries into individual incidents should be replaced by an inquiry into the whole issue of air traffic control, so as to bring some sort of reassurance to the many who fly and those who live under flight paths?

Mr. Channon

I understand my hon. Friend's views, and I listened to what he said this morning. The present signs are that the incident to which he referred was not a risk-bearing air miss — I told the House why a few moments ago. It is the chief inspector, not I—I have no power to change this without legislation—who by law decides what the AAIB is to investigate. It is right that he should not be under political pressure from Ministers. An inspector's investigation of the incident over Lydd on 6 February is under way. Any safety recommendations that emerge about air traffic control systems from the investigation will be reported to the CAA without delay.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Does it not make matters worse for the south-east that large numbers of northerners must still travel down to Heathrow and Gatwick to reach destinations abroad for which there should be scheduled services from Manchester? What recent action has the right hon. Gentleman taken further to develop the regional airports?

Mr. Channon

The right hon. Gentleman knows better than anyone—we discussed it recently—that there are now a substantial number of new international destinations from Manchester. I hope that we shall have formal discussions with the Americans before long. I am at one with the right hon. Gentleman in wanting opportunities for Manchester airport, and many other provincial airports, to expand. That will be good in itself and will help to ease congestion in London.

Mr. Colvin

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to differentiate between reported air misses and risk-bearing air misses? It is clear from what he said that it is four times safer to fly today, in terms of reported air misses, than it was 10 years ago. Following on from what he said about risk-bearing air misses, the figure for 1986 was only 16, while the figure for 1977 was 45. There again, there has been a massive improvement. Does he agree that it is wholly inconsistent with the dedication and skill of air traffic controllers for a small minority of that profession to try to make political capital out of the present circumstances?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the right point, especially in the first part of his question. Trends in risk-bearing air misses have been markedly downwards in recent years. That is precisely the point. I hope the House realises that, as a result of that, air journeys in the London area have been proved safer in recent years than they were in the past.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Does the Minister realise that many flights from the three main regional airports, Glasgow, Manchester and Belfast, do not leave on time because of chaos in London? Even if they leave on time, they cannot land because of chaos there. As one-hour flights now require one and a half hours, will the Secretary of State stop passing the buck to the Civil Aviation Authority and accept the responsibility for the increasing chaos at London airports?

Mr. Channon

I am not passing the buck. The CAA has the statutory duty by law, as passed by this House. That is why I must reiterate where the statutory duty lies. I am considering a number of points about Belfast flights which concern the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

As for the general issue of delays at airports, the most important duty must be for the CAA and controllers at airports to ensure that safety is paramount, even if it causes delay from time to time.

Mr. Jessel

May I remind my right hon. Friend that there has been no major crash at Heathrow since about 1972? As there are 300,000 flights per year, that is a very impressive record. However, near misses are alarming for people beneath the flight path and I hope that the inquiry will be extremely thorough.

Mr. Channon

I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the large number of flights from Heathrow and the very good safety record there. That is why I urge the House to understand what is going on and to appreciate the extraordinary good record of pilots and air traffic controllers, all of whom ought to be congratulated.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does the Minister not recognise that he has become so complacent at the Dispatch Box that he has degenerated into using claptrap? What on earth is a non-risk-bearing air miss? If it is not risky, why is it reported? To talk like that does not help the situation one little bit. The time has come for the Secretary of State to get all the interested parties together to have a proper investigation into air safety. The Secretary of State may think that people are not worried, but I can tell him that they are, and that they will be especially worried at Easter when there will be much more traffic in the air than there is now.

Mr. Channon

Untypically, the hon. Gentleman has asked a ridiculous question. All incidents and sightings should be reported, whether they contain a risk or are non-risk bearing. Preliminary indications in the incident at the weekend are that there was not a risk. Quite rightly, air statistics have been compiled like this for a great many years, including the years when the hon. Gentleman's party was in office. I cannot understand why he makes that ridiculous attack.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that within controlled air space aircraft in a position where they ought not to be should properly be reported by other aircraft using the same air space? In that situation there is not necessarily any risk, but it comes into the category of an air miss. It is unfortunate that Opposition Members do not understand the difference between the genuine concern about what ought to be done and the fact that there is a need, perhaps to satisfy the public, for some alternative to the Civil Aviation Authority investigating itself. That may well be one of the ways of alleviating risks. I do not accept that there is an increasing risk.

Mr. Channon

I agree with my hon. Friend's first point about air misses. I thought that that was common knowledge throughout the House, and I am amazed that it is not. My hon. Friend asked about air miss reporting and investigating systems. As I have told the House, the CAA chairman has initiated discussions about that matter. My Department will participate in them. It is an extremely good idea and I hope that the House welcomes it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have allowed a rather long run on that question and I think the House will understand if we now proceed rather more rapidly.