HL Deb 18 May 1976 vol 370 cc1303-10

4.51 p.m.

Lord TREFGARNE rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Air Navigation (Fifth Amendment) Order 1976 (S.I. 1976, No. 583) be annulled. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I do not think I shall detain your Lordships very long. The Air Navigation (Fifth Amendment) Order, which I am seeking to annul this afternoon, has four principal purposes and I propose to deal with only two of them. The first proposal provides for an approved person or a body corporate to issue a certificate of maintenance in respect of a British registered public transport aircraft. It has been a requirement, ever since the air operators' certificate procedures came into force some years ago, for a public transport aircraft in use in the United Kingdom to have a current certificate of maintenance, and it has been the almost universal practice for the Air Registration Board, as it was, now the Civil Aviation Authority, to require that that certificate of maintenance was signed by an appropriately licensed engineer or engineers. Your Lordships will understand that a modern aircraft is a complex machine, and it is sometimes necessary for engineers of different skills and trades to sign a certificate, each signature relating to a specific aspect or system on the aircraft.

It is now proposed that the certificate should be signed by persons approved by the Authority, and not necessarily holding an appropriate licence. This new provision has been made necessary by the introduction in recent years of aircraft of much greater complexity. It became apparent in 1970, or thereabouts, that the existing system could not continue indefinitely, because there simply were not sufficiently numerous licensed engineers to fulfil the necessary functions. Furthermore, it was clear that the complexity of new aircraft was such that it was virtually impossible for one man to assume responsibility for a complete aircraft together with all its systems, and for that reason the Authority, or the ARB as it was, then published its proposals for these new arrangements.

A trial scheme involving these new proposals has been in operation for a year or so, and I am told that, by and large, it has been successful. But a number of people in the industry, notably the licensed engineers' trade union, have expressed doubts about it, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oram, who is to reply to me will be able to help on that point. In particular, figures which British Airways have quite freely published—it was British Airways who were involved in a trial scheme with their Boeing 747 aircraft—seem to suggest that this new scheme has not been as successful as one might have wished. The noble Lord, Lord Oram, is, I believe, aware of the figures and I hope he will be able to comment on them when he replies to me in a moment.

There is another aspect of this, relating to the nature of the qualifications of those who would sign the new certificates, which I should like to mention. I have said that it is no longer possible to insist that the signatures to these certificates have the precisely appropriate aircraft maintenance engineers' licence and that, although regretted, is accepted. But I hope that the noble Lord can assure me that it will not be the Authority's policy to authorise unlicensed personnel to sign these certificates. I accept that it is not always possible for engineers with exactly appropriate licences to sign in the necessary way, but I believe that in future it would be appropriate for the Authority at least to insist that the signatories hold a professional engineer's licence of some kind. I accept that there is a problem in that, even now, certain people who are authorised to sign certificates of maintenance entirely properly and satisfactorily do not hold professional licences, and I would not suggest that that arrangement should he discontinued summarily. But I believe that, in the light of these new arrangements, the Authority ought not in future to authorise people to sign who do not hold an engineering maintenance licence of some kind. I hope that the noble Lord has taken that point on board and will be able to assure me accordingly.

The other provision of this order about which I seek to inquire is the last provision, which is a new one requiring the carriage of what is called a ground proximity warning system by a wide range of public transport aircraft. It is a fact that we are among the last of the major aviation nations of the world to bring in this requirement. But, none the less, it is coming in at a time when economic pressures upon airlines of all nationalities are greater than ever, and on British airlines particularly so because of the policy which Parliament has placed upon the Civil Aviation Authority to balance its books, which has resulted, quite properly, in the Authority having to raise its charges substantially in almost every area of its activities. This new requirement is likely to cost between £20,000 and £30,000 to fit each aircraft with the necessary equipment.

I do not dispute that in many cases this is appropriate, and that the order is therefore acceptable and relevant. But I would ask the noble Lord to bear in mind the problems of the smaller operators with one, two or three older aeroplanes, or aeroplanes of certain limited functions, for whom this is a particularly onerous requirement and who would, I believe, be proper candidates for dispensations. I accept that it would not be practicable for us to do other than make the obligation a statutory one as contained in this order, but I hope the noble Lord will he able to assure me that there will be wide and sympathetic consideration given to any operator who seeks dispensation from this new and very expensive requirement. Those are the only points which I have to mention, and with that I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Air Navigation (Fifth Amendment) Order 1976 (S.I. 1976, No. 583) he annulled. —(Lord Trefgarne.)

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first to thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for the manner in which he has prayed against this order, and also for giving me notice of a number of the points which he has just raised, which I hope will enable me to give him a firmer assurance than I might otherwise have been able to do. In addition to answering his points, perhaps I may take this opportunity of giving the background of the order.

In addition to a relatively minor matter, which the noble Lord did not mention, concerning the licence to be held by a person being paid to give instruction in flying, the order further amends the Air Navigation Order 1974 in relation to two major safety matters. I will take first the point that the noble Lord raised last; namely, the requirement to install ground proximity warning systems. As noble Lords may be aware, despite improvements in navigational aids and operating procedures, accidents still occur to aircraft as a result of collision with the ground or water. After extensive trials the Civil Aviation Authority have reached the conclusion that carriage of such equipment is essential to the safe operation of the larger passenger carrying aircraft—that is, those of a maximum total weight of over 15,000 kilogrammes, or those which are authorised to carry 30 or more passengers. Moreover, the Authority have recommended, and the Government accept, that the requirements should be introduced with the minimum practicable delay.

The amendment calls for the carriage of the equipment by turbo jet aircraft on and after 1st January 1977 and by other aircraft on 1st July 1977, and I am sure that the House would not wish to delay the introduction of this essential safety measure. Indeed, I am fully aware that the noble Lord does not wish there to be any such delay. In this connection the House will wish to know that similar requirements are being introduced by other countries and have already been introduced in the United States. The noble Lord made a plea on behalf of smaller operators who might find the installation of this equipment unduly burdensome. The figure that he gave was rather in excess of a figure that he will have received in correspondence with the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, whose presence here this afternoon I am sure we all welcome. Nevertheless, I take the point that this is a problem for the smaller operators. I am informed by the Civil Aviation Authority that while they propose to make no distinction between passenger and freighter aircraft they are prepared to consider applications for exemptions from the new requirement in respect of those aeroplanes which are due to be wholly withdrawn from service in the near future. Indeed, they are already considering very carefully some applications that have been made by a number of operators.

If I may turn to the second major issue to which the noble Lord also referred, this arises from the amendments to Articles 9, 11 and 12 and Schedule 4 of the Air Navigation Order 1974. These amendments, and associated administrative changes, are concerned with the maintenance of large modern aircraft—that is, those with a total weight authorised in excess of 30,000 lbs. which were first certificated in the United Kingdom after 1st January 1972.

As the House is aware, the Civil Aviation Authority are responsible for safety matters, including the maintenance of aircraft and the licensing of aircraft maintenance engineers. The chairman of the Authority has told us that the proposed changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, quite rightly explained, will place responsibility for the issue of certificates of maintenance in respect of large aircraft on organisations approved by the Civil Aviation Authority rather than on individual licensed engineers. He has advised that such changes are necessary, as it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible in the case of large and complex aircraft, for individual engineers to have the knowledge required to make meaningful maintenance certifications without the total support of the many specialist parts of an approved organisation over which they, the engineers, may have little or no control.

The chairman has also told us that these proposals, which are fully in accord with advice given by the Airworthiness Requirements Board and which have been under discussion with those concerned for some seven years, are based on principles which the Civil Aviation Authority and their predecessor, the Air Registration Board, have successfully applied since 1938 to the design, manufacture, overhaul and modification of aircraft and component parts. These proposals comply with the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. They are widely applied in relation to civil transport aircraft throughout the world and stem from principles which are long established in this country for military aircraft.

I understand that for the past five years the procedures have been applied to the maintenance of Boeing 747, DC10, Boeing 727 and Lockheed 1011 aircraft and that the Civil Aviation Authority have advised that in all instances the resulting maintenance standards have proved to be entirely satisfactory. The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, referred to the Boeing 747 and intimated that in his view there are figures indicating that possibly the new maintenance scheme has caused difficulty in relation to this aircraft. I have been advised by the Authority that the Boeing 747 in fact suffered more than its fair share of unserviceability in the course of being introduced into operational service, but the problem was very carefully examined by the Authority who came to the conclusion that such unserviceability was not attributable in any way to the system of maintenance. Therefore, I can assure the noble Lord that his point has already been thoroughly investigated.

The noble Lord then raised the question of whether all persons authorised to sign certificates will be licensed. He recognised that there are a limited number of persons with long experience and proven records for whom he would not insist that a licence is required. I have the assurance of the Civil Aviation Authority that with the exception of that very limited number of specially qualified people—that is, qualified in terms of experience—they will require all persons authorised to sign certificates of maintenance or certificates of compliance to hold licences. I believe the noble Lord will be satisfied to hear that.

These proposals have been considered and developed in the course of extensive consultation with operating companies, maintenance organisations, and the associations and unions representing the interests of licensed aircraft maintenance engineers. The chairman of the Authority has advised that it has not proved possible to obtain complete unanimity of support for the proposals, and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, indicated that one organisation is still not fully satisfied. Nevertheless, we are assured that these proposals are very widely supported in the industry. After careful consideration, the Authority have decided to proceed with the proposals which they have concluded, and the Government accept, are in the interest of safety.

In the view of the Government, the provisions of this order, as regards both the carriage of ground proximity warning equipment and the maintenance of large aircraft, constitute important contributions to the promotion of air safety. It is, of course, possible that these requirements and associated administrative procedures may well be capable of improvement as time passes and as additional experience is gained, and I am sure that the Civil Aviation Authority will in due course be only too willing to consider any constructive suggestions concerning them. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will be vigilant in these matters. I hope that against the background that I have been able to sketch the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his Prayer.


My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord for that reply. I am particularly gratified that he was able to give the principal assurance that I was seeking; namely, that the Authority will not in future approve persons to sign certificates of maintenance who do not hold aircraft maintenance engineers' licences. I was a little disappointed that his assurance on the range of dispensations that will be available against the requirement to install ground proximity warning systems was so narrow in range. However, I suppose in that case the "proof of the pudding is in the eating" and we shall have to wait and see. Taken all in all, I am obliged to the noble Lord and grateful for what he has been able to say, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.