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Aircraft: Safety Standards

Volume 576: debated on Friday 25 October 1996

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2.50 p.m.

Whether they are still satisfied with the provisions of the 1944 Chicago Convention regarding mutual recognition of certification of aircraft and aircrew.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the Government believe that the mutual recognition of certificates and licences issued in accordance with agreed minimum standards is the best way of ensuring that international civil aviation operates safely and efficiently. We are firmly committed to international action being taken by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the European Civil Aviation Conference to ensure that minimum standards are complied with.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Is he aware that the convention was ratified originally by 26 nations? Yet now I believe there are 16 nations of the former Soviet empire which in theory anyway are allowed to certify their own aircraft for safety—aircraft which come from a country which itself has an appalling record. Can we be satisfied that those countries and others around the world maintain the minimum safety standards which are not only important for their aircraft coming to this country, where we can at least do something about it, but also and perhaps more importantly for other airports in the world where British aircraft fly?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point. That is precisely why we co-operate so fully with the international civil aviation assessment programme on a multinational basis, where teams visit contracting states to assess whether ICAO safety standards are being observed. We feel that a multinational approach on this issue will produce the best results.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States applies different national safety standards for different categories, barring those in the lowest category of safety from United States' air space? Does he consider that that is a valuable initiative and one which Europe would do very well to copy?

My Lords, certainly we look very carefully at what the Federal Aviation Administration does. We take great note of the results that it produces. But we feel that the best results are guaranteed by international action, getting as many countries as possible and the signatories of the Chicago Convention to act together to send inspection teams to the various countries which apply to help them assess their own standards.

My Lords, certification is one thing but operating the standards is another, as I hope my noble friend will agree. On a closely related matter, can he say what is being done by ICAO or any other organisation to encourage former Soviet countries, China and no doubt one or two others, to allow the adoption of height measurement of flying aircraft in feet rather than in metres, as is the case in some of those countries? Does he agree that it would thereby remove some of the complexities and obvious risks of error which can apply, particularly when aircraft transfer from one country's airspace to another's?

My Lords, I believe my noble friend has identified an important point. It is clearly very important that pilots should know in which system they are talking, whether imperial or metric. With regard to which countries operate which systems and the communication between them, I should be delighted to write to my noble friend with the details.

My Lords, what do the Government seek to do through the International Civil Aviation Organisation? Do they agree, for example, that there are serious shortcomings in the current annexes governing these issues? There is no guidance, so far as pilot or operator ability is concerned, and no indication of the standards that are required. How can standards be checked unless they are known? Is there not an urgent need, particularly in the light of recent examples, to carry out a review of existing standards? How long are we expected to wait for the international consensus?

My Lords, there is no problem of having to wait for international consensus. The assessment programme of which I spoke is under way. I understand that 53 countries have invited teams in and 18 countries have been visited so far. The programme is under way at the moment. It is not possible for any one country to be the world's policeman, as it were, on this issue. There has to be multinational action. We firmly believe that the programme being taken forward by ICAO is the best way for that to happen and for the countries to take seriously their responsibilities under the Chicago Convention.

My Lords, will the noble Viscount bear in mind that air traffic control systems are of equal importance for safety? For aircraft to depart and arrive at an airport over the same path in opposite directions is not the happiest arrangement and is in fact an accident waiting to happen. Will he do his best to ensure that such practices are eliminated?

My Lords, air traffic control is clearly the responsibility of the host state. But I agree with the noble Lord that air traffic control is of paramount importance when it comes to the safety organisation at an airport. I understand that a Question has been tabled on this very subject from the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and is to be answered later this week. That might be the appropriate moment to talk in further detail about air traffic control.

My Lords, can my noble friend say how many inspections have taken place in this country of foreign aircraft which were considered likely to fail the tests? What action has been taken where such an aircraft has failed?

My Lords, my noble friend has identified another strand in the process. The Civil Aviation Authority in this country carries out ramp checks on aircraft. I understand that it has carried out 23 so far this year at the request of my department and two on its own initiative. Where there are serious problems, the aircraft can be detained and can be banned from flying. If we felt that there was enough evidence to have real doubts about the standards overall of the countries to which those aircraft were flying, we should not permit operations to continue from those countries. Happily, the vast majority of the ramp checks that have been undertaken have revealed only minor problems.