HC Deb 22 July 1998 vol 316 cc1230-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

11.2 pm

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I am pleased to have the opportunity at this late hour to discuss air safety. Recent growth in the number of passengers and the volume of freight travelling by air has been phenomenal. It is expected that the number of passengers carried will increase by about 4 per cent. per annum until 2006, and demand for freight capacity is expected to double over the next 10 years.

If travellers' perception of air travel is to remain that of a very safe form of transport, safety standards must be improved year on year. I am not suggesting that air travel is dangerous. Clearly, it is safer than travel by car, bus or train, but, with summer travel reaching its peak, passengers want to know that everything is being done to ensure their safety in the air. That means reducing the external risk of collisions, and minimising the internal risks caused by passengers' loutish behaviour or poor cabin design.

Some measures that could improve safety are worth detailed examination and a considered response from the Minister, which I am sure that they will receive. Some have been raised with me by a senior air traffic controller at West Drayton, others by members of the air safety group, which I sponsor. The group consists of ex-pilots and ex-engineers with a particular interest in the safety aspects of the industry, so their concerns cannot be dismissed lightly.

First, there are the points raised by the air traffic controller. In his view, at peak times, sector capacity is regularly being exceeded, and many potential incidents are simply not being reported. He mentions, for instance, an incident in the south of England a couple of days ago, when, because air traffic controllers in his sector were fully occupied with resolving one problem, they failed to spot the emergence of a potentially dangerous situation. Fortunately, it was spotted by air traffic controllers from another sector.

Sector overload could explain the sharp increase in the number of the most serious air misses. Those are few in number, but they have risen from 12 in 1993 to 30 in 1996, and with 13 incidents reported in the first four months in 1997, the period for which the most recent figures are available, they could be even higher in 1997, making perhaps a threefold increase in just five years.

I call on the Government and the safety regulatory group to look again at the allowed flow of between 42 and 46 aircraft movements per hour per sector, and to consider reducing that period to perhaps 30 minutes. That would help to smooth out dangerous peaks in aircraft movements.

The next issue that the senior air traffic controller was concerned about was European co-operation on air traffic control matters. That is limited. For instance, French controllers currently point many aircraft at Boulogne to get them out of French airspace as quickly as possible, with little regard for the difficulties that that causes air traffic controllers this side of the channel. I understand that United Kingdom air traffic controllers return the favour. Therefore, he urges rapid progress on a European air traffic control system, as does Lockheed Martin, representatives of which spoke to me today. They consider that co-operation at Government level is particularly important to ensure the rapid implementation of such a system.

I come finally to National Air Traffic Services. The senior air traffic controller's concerns in relation to NATS are not related to the delays that are being experienced in building the replacement software system. I think that all agree that the initial targets for building that system were far too ambitious. His concerns relate to the impact that the development of the system is having on staffing levels at West Drayton. He said that there are chronic manpower shortages, partly because staff are being drafted into Swanwick to test the new system there.

On an even more serious note, the senior air traffic controller drew my attention to a report produced by the 50 air traffic controllers working on testing the new system, which describes the system as fatally flawed. A method of operation has yet to be identified. There is some debate about whether all that is required to implement an acceptable method of operation are some minor system changes, but the current perception is that it will not work. He is also extremely worried about the stress levels of air traffic controllers, whether they use the old or the new system. I hope that the Minister will respond on that point, if not now in the near future.

I, too, have concerns about NATS, and specifically its privatisation, which I oppose, along with at least 16 Labour Members of Parliament who have signed an early-day motion opposing it.

Will the Minister explain what impact she expects privatisation plans will have on the delivery date of the new software system in Swanwick and in Prestwick? Can she guarantee that the first call on the proceeds of any privatisation of NATS will be for air safety initiatives?

I come now to some points raised by the air safety group. Drunken and rowdy air passengers may at first seem a comic business, but they are increasingly a cause of concern to airlines. The number of serious incidents involving drunken passengers has increased significantly—in 1993 there were 13, whereas in 1997 there were 62, although I think that those figures apply only to British Airways, so the total could be higher.

Will the Minister consider implementing in the United Kingdom the rules that the Federal Aviation Authority has implemented in the United States, whereby the only alcohol that airline passengers may consume is that supplied by the airlines? Will she also, at the suggestion of British Airways, ask the Civil Aviation Authority to increase penalties for all misbehaviour that is punishable under the air navigation order—which the authority updates annually—and extend it to cover other kinds of disruptive behaviour, such as the use of personal stereos, laptops or mobile phones when the captain has instructed that they should be switched off?

The air safety group believes that much more could be done to improve cabin safety. In 1991, the Select Committee on Transport issued a report called "Aircraft Cabin Safety", which contained recommendations to improve cabin safety, although I regret to say that many of them have not been implemented. The recommendations included better seat belts and improving the cabin crew's line of vision in the cabin. The Committee also recommended additional guidelines on the structural integrity of the plane, so that, for example, the fuel tanks were not ruptured in emergency alighting conditions. Will the Government undertake a review of all the outstanding recommendations and will they implement any of the key safety recommendations that have yet to be acted on?

I want an assurance from the Government that the United Kingdom will maintain its strict standards on flight time limitations. In the past, the European Union has tried to loosen regulations, so I hope that the Government will maintain a strong position.

It has been suggested that automated cockpits were responsible for the crash of a Taiwanese airbus. The problem is that, in some circumstances, pilots are unable to overrule the automatic pilot. Will the Government and the appropriate regulatory bodies examine both the training that pilots receive—concern has been expressed that the technical manuals that accompany automated pilots are insufficiently comprehensible—and the desirability of the extensive use of fly-by-wire technology?

I know that the Government will soon issue a White Paper on aviation, which I hope will deal with some or all of the safety issues that I have mentioned. There is no room for complacency about air safety. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of people will jet off for a well-deserved break; they will want the toughest standards in the world to apply to their journeys.

11.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) for raising such an important subject despite the lateness of the hour, affording himself the opportunity to raise the concerns of his group and me the opportunity to reiterate the Government's commitment to attach the highest possible priority to aviation safety.

As the hon. Gentleman said, aviation is a rapidly growing industry. Demand for air travel is expected to grow at 5 per cent. annually well into the new millennium, and the United Kingdom airline industry has doubled in size over the past 10 years. Increasing numbers of UK residents enjoy affordable holidays at a growing number of overseas destinations: 18 million holidays abroad were taken by air by UK residents in 1996; and Heathrow is the largest international airport in the world, handling 56 million passengers in 1996.

Britain's aviation safety record is excellent, but we share the hon. Gentleman's view that we cannot and must not be complacent. The effort that has made our aviation industry both successful and safe must continue to be made by all concerned: by those in the industry itself and those responsible for supporting and regulating that industry—the Government, the Civil Aviation Authority and its subsidiary company, National Air Traffic Services, or NATS.

We must also be prepared to make changes when changes become necessary. Recently, we announced our plans for the future of NATS. Our preferred option—a public-private partnership—will give NATS the freedom to borrow from the private sector for investment and business development, while retaining a significant public stake in the company. We believe that that will enable NATS better to meet the challenges of the future, which is in itself good news for air safety. Most important, safety regulation will be made independent of service provision. The safety regulator will ensure that safety remains the overriding priority.

Our intention to review arrangements for safety regulation across all transport modes announced in our White Paper on integrated transport policy will take into account all aspects of air safety regulation. Safety for British skies and British passengers world wide requires international effort. That is why we were so determined during our presidency of the European Union to make real progress towards setting up a European aviation safety authority. An important first step in setting up a strong and effective safety body, establishing high and uniform levels of safety throughout Europe, was taken by Transport Ministers last month.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for European control and, as I am sure he is aware, that, too, is an area in which the Government are playing a leading role, by promoting such proposals within Europe. We have also been at the forefront in calling for safety audits by the International Civil Aviation Organisation for all countries world wide. Indeed, we were the first major aviation state to ask ICAO to audit our own Civil Aviation Authority. That request and, indeed, the assessment were welcomed by the CAA.

Day-to-day safety regulation of the UK industry is the statutory responsibility of the CAA, and we have every confidence that the authority is alive to the challenges facing air safety, as is the hon. Gentleman. The authority is no more content to live on its reputation than we are. The CAA does not simply react to the last accident: it analyses the circumstances in which various accidents and incidents occur world wide in order to focus its actions on ensuring continuing improvements in safety. The authority has set itself the primary objective of ensuring that the frequency of accidents does not rise in line with increased traffic.

The hon. Gentleman raised specific issues, and I have already described how our proposals for NATS will help to strengthen air safety. Air traffic control issues figured prominently in his speech. I assure the House that there is no question of the UK's air traffic control system breaking down. Safety is always the top priority in air traffic control— indeed, the number of risk-bearing airproxes where NATS controller error was a causal factor has been declining steadily, and the total for January to June of this year is likely to be only one.

All possible steps are taken to prevent such incidents occurring, but the fact is that human error cannot be eradicated completely. What we do and must continue to do is learn from each incident and ensure that the safety system as a whole prevents incidents from developing into accidents.

All airprox incidents are subject to thorough investigation. Airprox reports by pilots are examined by the joint airprox working group, and reports by air traffic controllers by the joint airprox assessment panel. In addition, the air accidents investigation branch has the right on any occasion to institute its own investigation. The CAA follows up any recommendations carefully. Similarly, incidents of overload, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, are thoroughly investigated. Air traffic controllers have the option of introducing flow management measures to ensure that no more traffic than can be handled safely is allowed into the system.

Mr. Brake

Will the Minister respond to the specific point—perhaps she was about to come to it—regarding whether there is scope for reducing the one-hour period over which flow is measured, so as to ensure that there are not massive peaks within any given hour? That problem would be ironed out if the time frame were much shorter.

Ms Jackson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the arrival of aircraft often depends upon issues that are often beyond anyone's control. They have to do with weather conditions, air speed and, not least, where the aircraft departed from initially.

I would be hard pressed to give a categorical assurance on the one-hour issue, given the number of air traffic movements in our skies. I reiterate that it is within the power of air traffic controllers to manage the aircraft flow and to ensure that there is no danger. Safety must be the priority at all times, and it is the priority of all controllers. It is impossible for me to give a particularly detailed reply about the specific time scale that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I am happy to examine the matter and write to him in more detail.

To cope with the increasing demands on air space, NATS has developed a two-centre strategy for the United Kingdom. One of the centres will be the new en-route air traffic control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It will take over from the existing centres at West Drayton and Manchester.

The Government share concerns about the delay to Swanwick, but we must all be aware that such delays are not uncommon on projects of this size and complexity. Those concerns were also set out in the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee report on air traffic control, to which we responded on 24 June. As our response made clear, there is no reason to assume that the delay to the new centre will give rise to extra risk to the travelling public.

The London area and terminal control centre at West Drayton can continue to deal safely with traffic demands until Swanwick is operational. However, we recognise that it would be desirable to allay concern over safety. Our response to the Select Committee report confirmed that we will be commissioning an audit of current systems and personnel at West Drayton, and examining again the new systems at Swanwick. I assure the House that current NATS systems are being checked rigorously for year 2000 non-compliance. All non-compliant items should be fixed and tested by the end of December 1998.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked some very specific questions about the priorities—

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Will the Minister clarify the Government's exploration of the public-private partnership? Does she believe that it will have any effect on the speed of replacing the Prestwick centre?

Ms Jackson

I was about to touch on precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. They referred specifically to what we perceive as the likely outcome of the public-private partnership as far as NATS structure and priorities are concerned. I assure the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith)—I keep forgetting the name of his constituency, but he smiles, so I trust that he has forgiven me—that legislation will be required before the proposals can be put in place.

We have made it clear that we believe that a public-private partnership is the best way forward for NATS. The actual details, other than the split of shares—51 per cent. to the private sector and 49 per cent. to the Government, with the retention of a golden share—we have already announced publicly. However, the priority will remain safety, regardless of anything else that is inherent in the public-private partnership. We are not yet able to give any other details to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

As the Minister is aware, air traffic control West Drayton is in my constituency. Although safety is a priority, it is related to staff morale. Does she agree that, to maintain that morale, there needs to be closer and continued consultation with the staff of air traffic control West Drayton, particularly via their trade unions, to reassure them about their future employment, conditions of service, the protection of their pensions, and any future development of the public-private partnership?

Ms Jackson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It gives me the opportunity to reassure him and the House that the issues that he has raised, which are especially important for those who have given so much dedicated service to their industry, are of primary concern to the Government. Those issues are being addressed, and my hon. Friend rightly points out that a successful conclusion to any of those matters depends on the closest liaison, co-operation and information being given to all those involved.

I have already referred to our response to the concerns set out in the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee report on air traffic control. Today's Financial Times has the headline: "CAA accepts MPs' criticism over Swanwick". Although it is by no means welcome, it is not unusual to have such delays, given the complexities of the systems.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to the incidence of drunken and unruly passengers. One of the most disturbing aspects of people's rising expectations of air travel is that some do not seem to have rising expectations of how to behave. The number of incidents of drunk and disorderly behaviour that have been reported to the CAA as potentially threatening to air safety has risen from 13 in 1993 to 62 in 1997. It should be appreciated that that is a very small proportion of the total number of airline passengers travelling on UK aircraft, which in 1997 was 85 million. Nevertheless, the issue is taken very seriously.

It is an offence for a person to be drunk or to act recklessly or negligently on an aircraft. Offenders face a fine of up to £5,000 or two years in prison, or both. The commander of an aircraft can deny boarding rights to drunken or unruly passengers, or evict them if the need arises—I presume that that is when the aircraft is on the ground. The CAA is working with the airlines to ensure that their staff receive appropriate training to deal with those people.

On the actions of the FAA, to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred, I am not clear precisely how those could be enforced. The other offences to which he referred were the use of laptops and mobile phones, despite the fact that, on every flight nowadays, passengers are asked to switch them off. I shall certainly pass on his concerns to the CAA.

I have already mentioned the importance of independent investigations carried out by the AAIB, which is recognised internationally for its contribution to air safety. It tries to determine every contributory cause to an accident and any consequent injuries of deaths. It is free to make any recommendation that it wishes arising from its investigations. The majority of its recommendations are addressed to the CAA.

The AAIB is not required to assess the practicability or viability of its proposals, but the CAA must consider the feasibility and viability of such, assess how each would affect overall safety and the best method of implementation. Safety is its priority, and the authority accepts the majority of the recommendations, either in full or in part—more than 80 per cent. between 1990 and 1995.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

The hon. Lady is dealing in great detail with many of these issues, and hon. Members will be grateful for that, but does she think that the basic problem of air safety in this country is that we allow too many flights at too frequent intervals, especially in the south-east of England? Is she happy that the White Paper puts the emphasis on Heathrow and Gatwick, which are both in the south-east of England, as the hub of air transport to and from this country? Does she think that it would have been wiser, from all points of view, but especially in respect of safety for passengers and people on the ground, to have said no to more expansion of airports in the south-east?

Ms Jackson

I am somewhat surprised by the hon. Lady's contribution. Given the number of air traffic movements in this country, our record of air safety is second to none, although the Government, people in the aviation industry and the regulators cannot afford to be complacent about it. I was not aware that the White Paper made those assumptions about airports in the south-east. We have made it clear that there will be a daughter document on aviation and airports policy, and we are on the record as saying that we regard the development of regional airports as a vital way to regenerate the regions of the United Kingdom. Although we always take into account main considerations such as protection for the environment and surface access, airports are undoubtedly a regenerative accelerator.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington mentioned flight time limitations and automated cockpits. He is right to say that flight time limitations are important in respect of safety and ensuring that air crews are fit to fly aeroplanes and to take care of passengers. Such schemes are designed to ensure that crew are adequately rested between duty periods and do not work long hours that would cause fatigue.

The CAA is responsible for the rules governing such schemes in the United Kingdom. I am confident that the schemes work well. Foreign crews must meet FTL regulations set down by their own authorities, as required under the Chicago convention. In Europe, we have been trying for some time to harmonise schemes to a high standard, but it has proved difficult to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all in the industry. The European Commission is working hard on a solution, and we expect proposals soon.

On automated cockpits, computers and automated systems are being introduced progressively into new aircraft and—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve midnight.