HC Deb 26 February 1997 vol 291 cc297-302 12.30 pm
Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to raise an important issue concerning the responsibilities of the Department of Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority.

It is part of the historic traditions of the House that a Member of Parliament can raise on the Floor of the House an injustice that has befallen one of his constituents. This is just such a case.

On 15 June 1993, at 9 o'clock in the morning, my constituent, Mr. Constantinos Kashieris, was in his garden in Isleworth when a block of ice the size of a sack of potatoes fell from an aircraft. He subsequently suffered a serious injury. His general practitioner, Dr. Kaikini, of 19 Harvard road, Isleworth, reported that when Mr. Kashieris was in the back garden of his house and was about to enter the house through the back door … a huge piece of ice fell off a passing aircraft and crashed on to the spot he was standing moments before. The ice shattered.

Dr. Kaikini continued: The shock made him jerk violently and fall against the back door, injuring his right shoulder. All shoulder movements were limited thereafter. Mr. Kashieris was given a course of NSAID and was … referred for Physiotherapy. As a result of persistent pain in the shoulder and limitation of movement, he was referred to Mr. G. E. T. Raine, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon at the West Middlesex University Hospital, on the 30th of November 1993. X-ray of the right shoulder taken on 23.11.93 was reported as showing a translucent line running along the upper surface of the glenoid fossa, resulting in a fracture. Mr. Kashieris was seen by Mr. Raine on 24.12.93 confirming the limitation of the range of movements of the right shoulder. He was offered M.U.A. of the shoulder. He was reviewed again but the movements of the shoulder did not show any improvement. Because of his complaint, he was seen again in the surgery on 27 March 1995 and 24 April 1995.

Now nearly in his 80s, Mr. Kashieris has been battling with the CAA and British Airways for more than three and a half years to get compensation and recognition of his injury. What has been the reaction of the CAA, which should have been more assiduous in pursuing this case? In a letter dated 15 September 1993, the CAA told him: I am pleased to advise you that our investigation is now complete. Examination of the relevant Air Traffic Services movements record identified a number of aircraft in the vicinity of Isleworth at the reported time of the event. It has now been established that one of those aircraft had a defect which could have resulted in the build-up and subsequent shedding of ice in flight. The operator has now taken appropriate action to prevent a recurrence. The aircraft in question was a Boeing 747, registration G-AWNA, which was operating British Airways flight no. BAW218 into London Heathrow Airport on the morning of 15 June 1993. Therefore, any further correspondence regarding this event should be addressed to British Airways". Much to my surprise, I then received a letter from British Airways on 27 February 1995, referring to Mr. Kashieris's case, saying: It seems that the information given in the Civil Aviation Authority's letter of 15 September 1993 is incorrect in that the CAA were referring to a fault found on one of our aircraft which arrived at Heathrow on 15 July 1993. A technical log is completed following every flight and it seems from the logs of aircraft operated by BA and in the vicinity of Isleworth at the relevant time on 15 June 1993, there is no record of any reported fault which could have caused a large block of ice to fall. I find that very unsatisfactory. In effect, Mr. Kashieris has been told that he is not entitled to compensation because he did not note the aircraft's registration number as it passed over. That is mind boggling. Aircraft do not have their registration numbers on their undercarriage or the underside of their wings—only on their side and tail. Was Mr. Kashieris expected to carry a pair of binoculars while suffering from the shock of a large block of ice that fell near him, injuring his shoulder, to look at the aircraft's tail fin to try to get the registration number?

The CAA says that it cannot identify the offending aircraft. Of course it can. At Heathrow airport, the landing and take-off times of each aircraft, its route and guide path, are logged. National air traffic control services have a recording system to determine—the gap between each aircraft is one to one and a half minutes—which aircraft is coming or going, on which route and at what time. Additionally, because of the need for environmental protection, noise monitoring systems and microphones are placed all over the airport and its surroundings to monitor at precise times the aircraft that are flying overhead. All those aids should have been used to identify which aircraft was responsible for the block of ice.

As well as having his arm broken, my constituent has suffered from poor nerves, stress and sleepless nights since the incident. I repeat that he is an elderly gentleman nearly in his 80s. His case has been going on for the past three and a half years. The time taken to-ing and fro-ing between solicitors afterwards—all to no avail—has not helped either.

The CAA initially said that it was able to identify some 30 aircraft and that it was a British Airways flight. British Airways has denied that. The CAA should be able to identify exactly which aircraft was to blame, because the exact time of the incident was recorded by the Metropolitan police from the call that was made to report it. They have an official logged entry, recording the time the areoplane flew over Mr. Kashieris's garden in Isleworth. Just how many areoplanes could have been responsible? Surely it cannot be beyond the wit of the CAA to find out which one.

My constituent has been told that he would have to identify the aircraft before trying to claim compensation, but that is akin to telling the victim of a hit-and-run accident that the police cannot do anything to help unless the victim gives them the registration number of the car. If one is to apply commonsense logic or common law logic to this matter, to ask Mr. Kashieris to give the registration number of the aircraft, which is what the CAA is telling him—that is impossible for him to do—is absurd.

As things stand, Mr. Kashieris has been denied justice, and the same thing could happen again. How is anyone to identify an aeroplane when they have just been knocked to the ground by something that has fallen from it? I must put on record the letter that I received from Sir Malcolm Field, chairman of the CAA, dated 4 December 1996, which is what prompted me to ask for this Adjournment debate. I was incensed by it, and by the fact that Mr. Kashieris had been battling on his own with some help from me for the past three and a half years.

The letter says: Dear Mr. Deva, Thank you for your letter of 15 November 1996 concerning your constituent, Mr. Kashieris. The Civil Aviation Authority believes that it has done everything reasonably possible to assist your constituent in this matter and accordingly does not propose to take any further action. Mr. Kashieris had got fed up and had tried to take the CAA to court. Sir Malcolm Field says: Since your constituent has commenced proceedings against the Authority in relation to this matter, I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to comment in any more detail. The CAA had more than three years to find out who was responsible for this accident, to enable Mr. Kashieris to obtain compensation. It did nothing except give the wrong date, the wrong time and the wrong flight when it accused British Airways of being responsible. That is not good enough.

I have also received letters from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport regarding this matter. I would argue vigorously that the Civil Aviation Authority exists not only to promote the aviation industry, but to protect the people who live around airports and who suffer injuries because of aircraft. I speak as an aeronautical engineer: I am not anti-aircraft. I am one of the few people in the House who understands the constraints and difficulties of running an airport or an airline, but I recognise that people have suffered as a consequence of living near a huge airport such as Heathrow. It brings benefits to the locality, but it also brings disbenefits.

The CAA should strike a balance between the promotion of the aviation industry and its attendant benefits, such as jobs, and its responsibility to safeguard the local community and to protect it against the disbenefits of pollution, noise and ice falls. In one of his letters, my right hon. Friend said that 20 such incidents have been recorded, one or two of which have resulted in injuries being sustained.

As a Member of Parliament for a constituency in which many people have to put up with overflying aircraft, I appeal to the Minister and to the House to ensure that the CAA either is empowered to do more in this regard or, if it has the power to make inquiries, does so efficiently and carries out its remit according to legislation.

12.42 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. John Bowis)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) for raising this important issue. We are sorry to hear of the distressing incident that affected his constituent, Mr. Kashieris, and his difficulties in seeking compensation. My hon. Friend has been zealous on behalf of his constituent, and I congratulate him on that. He is right to suggest that when public bodies, be they Government or other agencies, deal with members of the public who have problems, or with Members of Parliament, a degree of sympathy and courtesy is in order. I am sure that those who need to do so will have heard the message that my hon. Friend has put on the record.

My hon. Friend said that Mr. Kashieris has instituted legal proceedings against the Civil Aviation Authority, so he will understand that I cannot go into the details of the case. Nevertheless, I can address the general points that he has raised, and attempt to explain the cause of the phenomenon of ice falling from aircraft, the frequency of such events and the risks that such occurrences pose to third parties on the ground. I shall also refer to the investigation of ice falls to try to identify the aircraft responsible, and will set out the steps being taken to reduce the number of such incidents.

My hon. Friend referred to a figure, which I must update, because it has risen a little. In the past 10 years, the average number of ice falls has increased from 21 a year between 1986 and 1989 to 25 a year until 1996—that was probably the figure to which he referred—when there were 33. We do not know whether that is due to increased public awareness of the need to report ice falls or to a genuine increase in the number of incidents. However, aircraft movements since 1980 have risen steadily from about 2 million a year to more than 3.5 million, and the underlying rate of ice falls has been fairly steady in the past six years.

Apart from the problems experienced by my hon. Friend's constituent, my Department is aware of only one incident in which an ice fall resulted in injury. On that occasion, the damage was second-hand, in that the householder was struck by debris falling from the roof of her house after it had been hit by ice, and she suffered bruising as a result. I should like to assure my hon. Friend and his constituents, who have a great number of aircraft passing over their homes, that the risks posed to third parties from ice falls, although real, are very remote.

Ice falls occur when ice that has built up on the outside of aircraft breaks free and falls to the ground. The main cause of ice build-up is faulty water systems on board large public transport aircraft. Leaking fluid from such systems gradually seeps out and freezes in the very low temperatures encountered at the normal cruising altitudes of large aircraft. When an aircraft so affected descends through the freezing level on its approach to land, any ice that may have built up during the flight begins to thaw, and consequently breaks free and falls to the ground.

Ice build-ups can also be caused by water in the atmosphere coming into contact with aircraft in certain meteorological conditions. Such build-ups can become detached, either by the activation of the aircraft's de-icing systems or as the aircraft descends or passes through a layer of warmer air.

The latest figures on ice falls were published by the Civil Aviation Authority in December 1996. They show that two thirds of reported ice falls involve the type of ice associated with aircraft lavatory installations, otherwise known as "blue ice", and that the remaining incidents involve other water system leaks or atmospheric water.

Owing to their potentially hazardous nature, ice falls are reportable occurrences under the Air Navigation Order, so they must be reported to the CAA when they occur. The problem is that people inside the aircraft—the crew or maintenance personnel—are seldom aware of an ice fall. Most reports of ice fall incidents come from members of the public who either have witnessed the result of an ice fall or, like my hon. Friend's constituent, have been affected by it.

Until last year, the CAA investigated all reports of ice falls when a specific time and location were given. Those investigations have, however, had a fairly low success rate, owing in part to inaccuracies in the information given regarding the time of the event, and, in part, to the difficulties of identifying aircraft water and waste system defects.

Although the CAA is satisfied that when leaks are identified on UK-registered aircraft they are recorded in the aircraft technical log, it is clear that a proportion of possible defects are not identified. There are several reasons for that. Some faults cannot be identified on aircraft while they are on the ground, because the aircraft are not pressurised. In other instances, the servicing agencies employed to empty water and waste systems do not have enough technical expertise to identify evidence of leakage or ice accretion. Because of those difficulties, and despite the considerable time and effort spent on attempting to trace the aircraft responsible for ice falls, the success rate has been only about 8 per cent.

In an attempt to improve the investigation process, and in recognition of what my hon. Friend rightly described as the potentially very serious nature of ice fall incidents, investigation of such events is now carried out by my Department's air accidents investigation branch. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that no investigation can be undertaken unless an accurate time for the ice fall is known. Even then, successful identification of aircraft responsible for ice falls depends on a number of factors, such as the amount and nature of air traffic at the time of the occurrence. The task of identifying responsible aircraft is not made easier by the fact that ice falls occur at times when many aeroplanes are waiting in holding patterns to land at the larger airports.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult to identify aircraft—and that is certainly true when the person concerned is lying on the ground, having been knocked over. As my hon. Friend said, that person cannot be expected to have a pair of binoculars to hand, enabling him to identify the number on the aeroplane. Even if he gets the time spot on, as may well have happened in this instance, it is not always simple to identify an aircraft that may have been in the vicinity at that time.

As with any other accident, if those affected by ice fall can identify a party responsible for the accident, compensation may be sought through the civil courts. Under section 76 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982, claimants do not have to prove negligence by the airline concerned; insurance can, and for the most part does, provide cover for damage to property.

The CAA is responsible for the safety regulation of aircraft registered in the United Kingdom. Before aircraft can be entered on the UK register, the CAA must be satisfied that they meet the appropriate standards for design and construction. For new aircraft, those standards are set by the European joint aviation authorities. Responsibility for the safety regulation of foreign-registered aircraft rests with their own state of registry, but they must comply with the internationally agreed minimum standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Where problems with ice fall are likely to have safety implications for aircraft themselves—problems such as a leak in a forward lavatory on certain types of aircraft, which could result in the shedding of ice into an engine—the CAA has issued mandatory airworthiness directives on maintenance and inspections. The CAA also recommends that investigations of water and waste system leaks should be included in routine inspections.

Aircraft constructors and operators are well aware of the potential implications of ice falls, and that is taken into account in the design of water and lavatory systems. For example, there is now a tendency to use vacuum systems on new types of aircraft, as service experience has shown them to be more reliable than the recirculation systems more commonly used in the past.

With respect to aircraft currently in service, CAA airworthiness directives have been issued for a number of aircraft types, requiring mandatory leak checks to be carried out regularly by operators, and, where necessary, appropriate remedial action to be taken. The CAA has advised all UK air operators certificate holders of the importance of taking preventive maintenance measures to minimise the likelihood of ice falls. Other steps being taken include the fitting of manufacturers' modification kits to improve resistance to water leaks at servicing points, routine visual inspections by airline engineers for evidence of ice accretion after an aircraft has landed, unannounced inspections by CAA surveyors checking airworthiness standards—including inspections for ice accretion and water leakage—the recording of occurrences by the CAA, and investigation of serious events by the air accidents investigation branch.

We recognise that ice falls have the potential to cause death or serious injury to third parties on the ground, but there are no reports of that in the United Kingdom, and the risk to people on the ground, although real, is very remote. Nevertheless, I well understand my hon. Friend's concern on behalf of his constituent, who appears to have been one of those "very remote" examples. He will be reassured by the fact that my hon. Friend has raised the matter here today, and that it is taken seriously by the Government, the Department of Transport and the CAA. We will certainly ensure that the record of today's proceedings is drawn to the CAA' s attention.

The issue has been raised in the past with the Select Committee on Transport, and is kept under review. The best reassurance that I can give my hon. Friend and his constituents is that the aviation industry is taking practical steps to combat the problem, and to prevent such incidents from happening at all. When they do happen, ways must be found of identifying who is responsible—that does not necessarily mean "culpable"; it means that someone somewhere is in charge of an aeroplane that has deposited the ice.

I repeat that those aboard the aircraft concerned may be the last to know about such incidents. We should not jump to the conclusion that the captain and cabin crew should be aware that something has happened, and report it; that is not a practical solution. Whenever possible, however, people should be able to identify the aircraft that is likely to have caused the problem, so that it can be pursued—not literally pursued through the air, of course.

The CAA believes that current operating procedures, combined with good maintenance practice, will be sufficient to control the hazard posed by ice falls. I join my hon. Friend in hoping that that is the case, and in expressing sympathy to his constituent.