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Aviation: Air Quality

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 18 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What recent representations they have received relating to the problem of lubricant contamination of the air supply in aircraft cabins and cockpits, with particular reference to disclosures in the Australian Senate.

My Lords, the Department for Transport received a letter on 18 August 2007 from a Professor Winder of New South Wales. The department responded on 6 September making clear that the 1993 papers Professor Winder enclosed with his letter, in relation to agreements between commercial parties, were matters for the parties concerned, two of which were Australian airlines which no longer exist.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is not just a matter for the airlines concerned? The document to which he refers is an agreement between British Aerospace Regional Aircraft Limited and two Australian airlines, but it gives most extraordinary evidence of the way in which the company has sought to keep a secret the considerable problems that affect the BAe 146 aircraft, which is used extensively in Europe and the United Kingdom, not least by the Queen’s Flight. Does the Minister accept that the most extraordinary revelation in this document is that BAE paid 750,000 Australian dollars to keep this deal secret? Does he accept that for more than 14 years pilots, air crews and passengers of the BAe 146 aircraft have been denied vital information about this problem? What is the Government’s reaction to the fact that BAE seems to be more concerned about the leak of this document than about the leak of toxic fumes into aircraft cabins and cockpits with potentially disastrous consequences?

My Lords, I can accept very little of what the noble Lord has said. I do not think that this matter is one of great secrecy, nor do I see a conspiracy or a cover-up. The documents that we received were matters of public record and were placed, as I understand it, in the Senate Library, in Australia.

On the potential presence of fumes in cabins and cockpits, your Lordships' House has a very good track record through its Science and Technology Committee for investigating those issues and matters, and further research has been commissioned. The committee on toxicology has looked at these issues as well. It needs to be remembered that only one in some 2,000 flights experience what is described as a “fume event”. The numbers of people who respond saying that they are unwell as a consequence of this are very small.

My Lords, can I press the Minister perhaps to meet the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and myself again—his noble friend Lord Davies met us on a number of occasions—to discuss this matter? It really is serious and the incidence is much higher than that which the noble Lord has demonstrated.

My Lords, I am more than happy to meet the noble Countess and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, at any time to discuss these matters. I know that my noble friend Lord Davies met colleagues on earlier occasions. I am more than happy to discuss some of those issues. We need to stick to the science, which is the way through. As yet, I see no evidence to suggest that this is a major problem, but we are taking the issue very seriously, which is why we have commissioned further research.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee. Is he aware that that committee is currently taking evidence on this matter? Trials are taking place to capture samples of cabin air for analysis, which I hope will shed a lot more light on this matter.

My Lords, I was aware of that, hence my earlier reference to the work of the Science and Technology Committee. Yes, these trials and the undertakings of sampling will feature strongly in any future findings of the committee.

My Lords, in respect of this problem, is the Minister as confident about obsolete aircraft designed in the 1960s and 1970s such as the VC10 and Tristar aircraft operated with difficulty by the RAF?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for drawing those particular aircraft to the attention of the House. Most of the problems that appear to have arisen are with commercial aircraft, principally the BAe 146 and the Boeing 757. The Civil Aviation Authority has introduced mandatory action for the BAe 146, and similarly action has been taken with regard to the Boeing 757. There it was discovered that the primary cause was related to engine oil servicing procedures. Those procedures are being revised, and beneficial results are already being shown.