HL Deb 28 July 1981 vol 423 cc741-6

8.20 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull rose to ask Her Majesty's Government why they saw fit to qualify the recent report of the Spanish authorities concerning the accident at Tenerife in April 1980.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am grateful to the Chief Whip for allowing this brief moment of time tonight in his busy programme to raise for the first time in this House the extraordinarily confusing report published last week by Spanish authorities on the Dan Air accident at Tenerife in April 1980, which contributed, as the House will recall, to the worst air disaster in British aviation and the tragic loss of 146 lives. I say "confusing report" as, of course, the conclusions were seriously qualified and, indeed, rejected by Her Majesty's Government—that is, the conclusions on culpability. I hope that tonight my noble friend, whose responsibilities, we know, cover all civil aviation matters, will be able to throw more light on the reasons behind the disagreement on culpability, and give an assurance from Her Majesty's Government that they are satisfied that the steps which have been taken by the Spanish authorities since the accident now meet the safety standard of ICAO at the two Tenerife airports.

May I start at once by adding my name to what I am sure is the deep sympathy felt by the whole House to all relatives and families of both the crew and passengers who perished in the disaster. I would also add that I am sure the Government's rejection of the Spanish authorities' report of pilot error is a very welcome source of comfort and vindication to the reputation and memory of the crew and, indeed, the airline, and their families. The report itself must be unique in the history of air accident investigation. We had experts from three countries—from the United States, from Britain and from Spain—all joining forces to analyse the cause. The report took 15 months to publish, although I suspect only nine months to complete. Its contents were mysteriously leaked some weeks before publication. Its chief conclusion of pilot error is refuted firmly by the British Government, with reasons.

The report offers three pretty ineffective recommendations for future safety. I suggest it leaves any reader of the report with no confidence on the face of it that the then inadequate Spanish air control organisation could not again repeat their awful mistake. The British addendum to the report offers three major criticisms of the Spanish air control system at Tenerife at the time: first, the ambiguity of information for the pilot; secondly, the lack of a published holding pattern for the pilot; thirdly, the unrealistic aircraft track. If one adds to this the recent criticism by the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Association of the limited landing aids available at the old Tenerife Airport, it makes one wonder whether Her Majesty's Government are truly satisfied with the present procedures of air traffic control at Tenerife—and, indeed, do they now meet the safety requirements of ICAO?

This leads one to query: Should not a busy airport with mountainous terrain be equipped with every possible known safety aid, including radar? Surely this would diminish the scope of human error of traffic controllers. Perhaps my noble friend could comment briefly on this. In recent months, of course, matters have changed at Tenerife considerably, with the opening of a new airport. This, I understand, now handles all the direct flights from Britain. But what of its standards of air traffic control and landing aids at this airport? Can my noble friend confirm that British airlines now use this airport exclusively, and that they are satisfied that the necessary steps have been taken by the Spanish authorities? Perhaps when my noble friend replies he will also confirm that the normal Civil Aviation Authority conditions of licence as regards insurance provisions applied to the Dan Air service to Tenerife in 1980.

My noble friend knows well that there have been a number of disturbing features surrounding this investigation, and indeed the publication of this report, not least the apparent deliberate leaking of its conclusions before publication. I hope my noble friend can say that this matter is being taken up, and has been taken up, at the appropriate level. But the most disturbing feature remains—the disagreement on culpability. Anyone who has read the transcript recorded from the "black box" cannot fail to wonder about the illogicality and bias of the Spanish authorities' conclusions. I commend the Government for their addendum, for removing the unfairness of the charge of blame from the crew and the airline.

But, having said that, I trust my noble friend can assure us tonight that every reasonable step arising from this report has been taken by the Spanish authorities to avoid a repeat of such an accident, and that thousands of sun-starved British holiday-makers visiting Tenerife can have that assurance in planning their holiday.

8.26 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, may I first of all thank the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for allowing us on this auspicious day, although rather late in the evening, the opportunity to discuss this report, which unfortunately we were unable to discuss last week. I should first of all like to associate myself with the condolences which he expressed to all those who were bereaved as a result of this appalling accident. Secondly, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who is to reply to this debate in his role as one of the Ministers at the department, for insisting that there was an addendum to the report. I am sure that we are all very much concerned that in fact the report as a whole should be a properly balanced document.

This fact, that it was necessary to have an addendum at all, I think raises the point about whether there is adequate international machinery for the investigation of crashes of this sort. Indeed, my Lords, my attention has been drawn to a leading article in The Times newspaper on the day after the statement was made, in which it was said: It is unfair and unsatisfactory to continue with a system in which the country that has primary responsibility for investigation may also have a national interest in the result". The article went on to say: Increasingly air crashes today have international ramifications. It is not uncommon to find the airline of one country flying the aircraft of another, ferrying passengers of various nationalities to all manner of foreign destinations. It is no longer satisfactory to leave the investigation of air accidents with such international aspects to the often inefficient and sometimes not impartial offices of a country which happened to play host to the crash". I wonder whether the noble Lord has given any consideration to the desirability of trying to set up some form of international and impartial mechanism for the investigation of air crashes. I think that this is a particular lesson which this report, and the fact that it has been necessary to make an addendum to it, raises.

I should then like to return for a short period to the details surrounding this report. It has a number of disquieting aspects, particularly from the point of view of the layman. One felt that there was a very casual attitude to some of the instructions which passed from the control to the aircraft. For example, the controller, in his instruction to the 727 crew, was meant to say, The standard holding pattern turns to the left". What was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage was the instruction: Turn to the left". Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred to the inadequacies of these instructions. He also referred to the fact that some sections of this report were leaked by the Spanish authorities before it was published. That is another worrying aspect. Another worrying aspect is how the programme "Panorama" was able to obtain a copy of the cockpit voice recording; that is another point on which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will be able to comment when he replies.

Those who have heard the cockpit voice recording will know that to some extent it demonstrated a casualness on behalf of those flying the aircraft. I wonder whether the noble Lord will have anything to say about whether the crew of the aircraft were perhaps over casual in their duties at the time immediately prior to that at which the crash occurred. I wonder whether the noble Lord feels able to make any comment on that point as well.

Finally, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has any point to make on the question of radar, because it seems that if radar had been installed this particular catastrophe might possibly have been averted. This report, by its very publication, raises a number of serious issues. I hope that in his reply the noble Lord will be able to respond to some of them.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I want first to thank my noble friend for initiating this debate on the tragic accident which occurred at Tenerife in April 1980. As my noble friend said in his opening remarks, this accident was the worst in the history of British aviation. The accident has been the subject of a comprehensive inquiry in which our own Accidents Investigation Branch and American investigators were closely involved. As my noble friend has pointed out, however, my right honourable friend decided that the final report on the accident produced by the Spanish Commission of Investigation should be published with a qualifying addendum. This was published on 20th July and was also attached to the Spanish version of the report.

If I may, I should like to point out right away that this addendum was not produced by Her Majesty's Government but by the United Kingdom's accredited representative, who is a senior inspector with the Accidents Investigation Branch. In accordance with the procedures established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, an inspector with the Accidents Investigations Branch of the Department of Trade was appointed the United Kingdom's accredited representative and actively participated, together with his advisers, in the Spanish investigation. The addendum was prepared by him in order to restore balance to the report which was, in his opinion, missing from the original document. I am sure that your Lordships appreciate that the Accidents Investigation Branch enjoys statutory independence in the discharge of its duties and that it would be quite improper—indeed, unlawful—for Her Majesty's Government to intrude into the preparation of reports et cetera.

May I now turn to this particular report, which was prepared by the Spanish authorities. In general, the AIB are in agreement with the report but, as I have said, it was considered that further comments were necessary in order to give the document a proper balance. The Spanish report places responsibility for the accident firmly on the aircraft commander. Although it is true that final responsibility for maintaining a safe altitude rests with the commander, in our view the report seriously understates those inadequacies of the Spanish Air Traffic Control Organisation which contributed to the accident. The most appropriate way of ensuring that these comments were seen in the context of the report was to publish them as an addendum. The Spanish authorities readily acceded to the United Kingdom's request to do this.

From time to time, especially following a tragic accident such as the one under discussion, there are calls—such as that which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, repeated tonight—for some form of international accident investigation organisation to undertake the investigation of major aircraft accidents which have a strong international flavour. The procedures for the investigation of such accidents have long been under the benign influence (if that is the right expression) of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and in general they are very satisfactory.

In addition, it must be borne in mind that questions of national sovereignty arise. For example, how would we in this country react to an international team of investigators descending on us—who would, almost certainly, be less qualified and experienced than our own Accidents Investigation Branch? It does not follow that an international organisation would necessarily be any more impartial or better qualified than the local national team.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, also referred to the absence of radar at Tenerife, and others have commented on this as a possible contributory factor in the accident. I have to say quite plainly that I do not think that the availability of radar in this case would necessarily have avoided the accident. There are two reasons why I believe that. The first is that radar in general is not a terrain clearance aid. It is designed to expedite the flow of traffic in and out of airports such as Tenerife. At airports where the level of traffic is comparatively low then procedural approach arrangements are entirely satisfactory, provided of course that they are properly devised in the first place and are properly executed by the aircrew who are always trained, of course, in the use of those facilities.

Secondly, in this particular case there is considerable doubt whether in fact it would have been possible within the very short time available to observe the turn of the aircraft towards the high terrain instead of away from it in sufficient time to warn the aircrew and instruct them to turn in the opposite direction, away from the mountains. There was only a very short span of time—some 40 seconds in all, I believe—during which that manoeuvre could have been completed. That is to say there were only 40 seconds in which to observe and identify the wrong turn and for the aircrew to correct it following instructions from the radar controller. Looking at the charts, as I have done quite recently, I do not think that this could have been achieved in the short time that was available.

My noble friend Lord Kinnoull asked me about the arrangements at Tenerife airport in general. There are now two airports on the island of Tenerife. The southern airport was opened comparatively recently and, so far as I am aware, it is adequately equipped to the standards ICAO laid down. The northern airport, near which the accident in question occurred, is not now used by international passenger flights. As I understand it, it is used only by local flights involving small aircraft and by freight aircraft. I hope that the reservations which my noble friend expressed have been adequately dispelled by this reply.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friend Lord Kinnoull referred to leaks. There were two issues of concern to us in that connection. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, the tape recording from the cockpit voice recorder was used in the "Panorama" programme which was broadcast before the report was published. There were, as I understand it, two copies of the recordings, one of which was held by the British and the other by the Spanish authorities. I can assure your Lordships that the tape held by the British authorities was not made available to the BBC for this purpose. As for the report itself, it is apparently the case that a copy was available to the media at least three weeks before it was published. I can assure your Lordships that that copy did not come from any British source. How it came to be found in the hands of the media I cannot say; but, as I said, it did not come from the British authorities.

My noble friend Lord Kinnoull also referred to the question of compensation for the victims of this accident. The Warsaw Convention of 1929 established a régime under which a person can in practice recover damages, subject to proof of loss, up to a fixed limit. This gives a significant benefit to the passenger. He or she does not have to prove negligence and thus long and contentious litigation can be avoided. I accept, however, that there may be a problem over the level of compensation payable. The fixed sum is of course liable to erosion by inflation. The present limit of 58,000 United States' dollars (about £30,000) resulted largely from a United Kingdom initiative in 1974 to improve the amount paid by airlines in more than 20 countries. In a further step, the Civil Aviation Authority has arranged that from April 1981 United Kingdom airlines should contract with their passengers for a liability up to 100,000 special drawing rights, which is about £57,000. The authority is monitoring compliance at present and it is clear that virtually all air transport licence-holders have complied. But I regret that this improvement comes too late to benefit victims of the Tenerife accident crash, with whom the contracted sum was still set at 58,000 United States' dollars.

My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, referred to the inadequacies of the air traffic control system in Tenerife. The Government agreed in the course of the addendum to the report that there were indeed some inadequacies in the air traffic control system there. We believe that with the downgrading—if that is the right word—of the northern airport on Tenerife and the opening of the new airport these problems are largely eliminated. The implementation of ICAO procedures in Spanish air space is a matter for the Spanish authorities, but we have no reason to believe that there is any cause for alarm on that count.

Finally, I want to say one or two good things about the Spanish authorities in this matter. It is the case that under the international agreements—as I have already said—they have to carry out the investigation. However, they readily agreed—as they were required to do—to accept British and American accredited representatives. The American representative has a locus because he would be representing the state of manufacture of the aircraft. It is also the case that the Spaniards readily agreed—as they were not obliged to do—to publication of the report in principle, and this was some considerable time ago. Indeed, they subsequently agreed to the report being published with the addendum to which I have already referred. Those are the main points that have been raised with me tonight. I hope that I have been able to set the fears of my noble friend at rest. I should like to end by expressing once more sorrow at this tragedy and extending deep sympathy to relations and friends of all those who were killed.