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House of Lords Hansard
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Aviation: Boeing 737 MAX 8 Jets
11 March 2019
Volume 796

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and UK flight operators regarding the safety of those travelling on Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets, in response to two fatal incidents involving this model in the last five months.

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

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My Lords, following the tragic accident yesterday in Ethiopia, the Civil Aviation Authority is working with both the European Aviation Safety Agency and the UK operator to determine what future action may need to be taken. As more information becomes available, we will continue to consider all options to ensure the safety of our citizens here in the UK and across the globe.

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My Lords, I flew the 737-200 and 300. In my day we had a rule: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. The industry seems to have lost sight of that rule. I believe that everybody involved will be shown to be in dereliction of their duty: Boeing for pressing for a ruling that pilots did not need to be informed of the new system on cost grounds; the FAA for agreeing to it; EASA for giving in after initially opposing the Boeing position. The initial report strongly suggests that the latest crash is related. What will the Minister do? Can she explain why the Government are not taking immediate action to ground this aircraft until they have had a satisfactory explanation of the crash?

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My Lords, as the noble Lord pointed out, the investigation into the Lion Air accident is ongoing and obviously, the awful accident in Ethiopia happened only yesterday. We are working very closely with EASA, which is discussing the accident with the US Federal Aviation Administration, and any decision to ground flights is best taken at an international level. EASA, which is the validating authority, and the FAA, as the state certifying design, are best placed to take this decision, but of course, we will follow their guidance.

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My Lords, I add my condolences to those who were tragically killed in the accident yesterday and the previous one. Can my noble friend confirm that, following Brexit, the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority will stand ready to do whatever is necessary once EASA lays down that role?

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I thank my noble friend for his question. The UK is a leader in global aviation safety and we will continue to be so regardless of the outcome of our negotiations on Europe. We want to remain a member of EASA and very much hope to do so, but I confirm that the CAA, which already carried out many safety responsibilities, is fully prepared to do so in the event of no deal.

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My Lords, the key to aviation safety is the sharing of information. Large batches of data enable the relevant safety agencies to spot trends and highlight specific problems. Yet, tomorrow, we will be discussing aviation safety regulations which, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, will cut us off from the automatic flow of information from EASA to which the Minister referred. They give powers instead to the Secretary of State, with no transparent decision-making. Forgive me if I am not brimming with confidence about that process.

There will clearly be an investigation of the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets. It could well cross over until after Brexit. How will the Government ensure that we get full information from EASA and that we share fully our information on those planes?

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My Lords, as I said, we want to continue as a member of EASA. Safety is our priority and it is in both our interests for us to continue to be a member of EASA. Regardless of the outcome of the negotiation, we will of course continue to work very closely with our European and global partners to keep our people safe in the skies.

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Can my noble friend confirm the news that I heard this morning that the black box from the aircraft has been found? If that is so, when would she expect the results of the investigation to be promulgated?

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I have seen the same reports as my noble friend. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch has offered assistance to the Ethiopian authorities. That has now been accepted and a team is now being deployed.

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My Lords, the Chinese authorities have grounded all 60 of their aircraft of this type. Would she care to speculate why they have done so and whether their action is premature?

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No, I would not wish to speculate why the Chinese have taken those decisions. As I said, the CAA is in discussion with EASA on any restrictions that should be put in place, but the current position is that more information is needed to warrant any grounding decision. As I also said, these decisions are best taken internationally. We have five 737 MAX 8s registered in the UK, but 350 are flying globally. Further conversations are of course ongoing and we are keeping in close contact with both the CAA and EASA.

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My Lords, it is most unusual for two aeroplanes of the same model to crash within such a short period. Surely it would be prudent for the operation of these aircraft to be suspended until it is decided what caused these accidents.

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Following the Lion Air crash, Boeing, the manufacturer, issued an emergency safety bulletin and the FAA and EASA issued an emergency airworthiness directive. That mandated that 737 MAX 8 operators revise the flight manual and training procedures to prepare pilots to deal with the same incident that the Lion Air pilot appeared to experience. Of course, before the aircraft entered into service, the CAA conducted a safety assessment that took into account the preliminary findings from the Lion Air accident and the EASA airworthiness directive. As I said, this accident happened yesterday and we are keeping in close contact with those investigating it.

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My Lords, most people would believe that if Boeing issued new instructions and safety rules after the Lion Air accident four months ago, they were probably defective as another accident has happened. Will we have to wait another four months before any action is taken? That seems a risky policy.

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The accident happened yesterday and obviously, we are looking carefully into what caused it. As I said, an airworthiness directive was issued and acted on. We are working closely with EASA and the FAA on any further steps we should take.

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My Lords, what advice would the Minister give British citizens thinking of travelling on one of these aircraft in the near future?

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My Lords, as I said, safety is our number one priority. The Civil Aviation Authority leads the way on that for us in this country. As I also said, before any of the 737 MAX 8s entered into service, the CAA did a full safety assessment, taking into account the findings of the Lion Air accident. As noble Lords would expect, both the department and the CAA are in close contact with the operator to ensure that the aircraft are safe.

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My Lords, which companies in this country fly this aircraft?

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My Lords, one operator in this country flies them: TUI, which has five UK-registered aircraft based out of Manchester. Of course, other airlines fly those aircraft into the country; there have been around 730 such flights so far this year.

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My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while safety must of course be the principal consideration, the confidence of air travellers is also very important? Two accidents involving a new model of aircraft in a short time is always a source of particular concern. In matters of this kind, it is usually better to err on the side of caution in taking action, or even to be premature, rather than letting things run on.

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I agree with my noble friend that it is right to err on the side of caution. The aircraft was a Boeing 737 MAX 8, as in the previous crash, and there has of course been lots of speculation as to whether there is a link. It is too early to speculate on the cause or any similarities, but that will be a line of investigation. As I said, we are working closely with our European and international partners to make sure that we are taking the correct action.