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Lower Airspace Radar Service
18 January 2001
Volume 620

3.16 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Lower Airspace Radar Service (LARS) provision in the South East of England is satisfactory.

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My Lords, the advice of the Civil Aviation Authority is that the Lower Airspace Radar Service in south-east England is satisfactory. The noble Lord, as an active and distinguished flyer himself, may be aware that the Civil Aviation Authority is currently carrying out a routine review of the LARS service provision in south-east England. If the review identifies any particular difficulties I can assure the House that these will be addressed.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer; however, I am a little bemused by it. How can there be satisfaction with the LARS service in south-east England when three of the major LARS areas are not covered; namely, Manston, Luton and Dunsfold? As a radar service to general aviation below 9,000 feet in non-controlled airspace, LARS is a very important service. it enables general aviation—police helicopters, air ambulances, pipeline inspection workers and those involved in air traffic control, as well as flying schools—to operate in an environment that can often be extremely difficult in bad weather over an area of high population density.

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My Lords, many civilian pilots do not use LARS, as they prefer to fly and navigate without assistance. Radar is generally ineffective in monitoring low-flying aircraft in some areas because the terrain can obscure radar responses. The CAA and the Home Office are not aware of any LARS-related problems involving, for instance, the emergency services in south-east England. Most police helicopters fly below the level at which LARS is provided; air ambulances normally fly in the upper reaches of the LARS band where they can obtain a service from the local military air traffic control centre. I shall certainly look into any aspects of which the noble Lord wishes to inform me and see whether the CAA or the Home Office can provide him with further details.

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My Lords, is it not a question of who would pay for LARS in this particular area? The Minister's first Answer suggested that, if the review took account of further needs, such needs would be provided. Does that mean that new radars would be provided in the event that such provision were required?

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My Lords, although LARS is available over much of the United Kingdom, it would require a great increase in resources to extend it to cover the whole of the country. At present, aerodromes are not required to provide, nor flyers required to use, LARS. It already costs in excess of —1.4 million a year. Therefore, to extend it to cover the whole of the United Kingdom would appear to be a disproportionate level of effort and investment for the benefit that would accrue. The costs fall on the commercial aviation community to the benefit of the general aviation community.

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My Lords, does the Minister accept that this radar service is a valuable aid to safety and that its withdrawal causes significant concerns to pilots who fly outside of controlled airspace, especially those who fly by way of instruments in certain meteorological conditions—that is, in cloud? Therefore, does the Minister accept that the withdrawal and the diminution of the service has caused very significant concerns to pilots? I should declare an interest here as a current aviator.

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My Lords, in relation to the question of LARS withdrawal from Luton Airport in particular, I can tell the House that that decision was made prior to that airport handing over the control of its air traffic services to NATS. That decision was based on a very substantial traffic increase at Luton Airport in recent years. However, NATS has assured the Government that the management of the controlled airspace in the area around Luton Airport is sufficient to provide protection to aircraft. Nevertheless, I accept the noble Viscount's point about the importance of LARS. I commend the very important role played by the Ministry of Defence and its air traffic providers in the kind of assistance that they give to the general aviation community.

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My Lords, there is some concern about the level of commercial aviation in the controlled airspace, especially in the area of Gatwick and Heathrow where there is a tremendous number of flights moving around at a wide variety of heights. When the CAA conducts its routine review, can the Minister say whether it will consider the whole question of conflict between high level aircraft and those aircraft flying at lower levels in this very congested airspace?

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My Lords, when the CAA conducts its review of LARS in the south-east of England, I am sure that it will do so in the context of the other commercial activities to which the noble Baroness referred. However, in terms of the concern about overloads that have taken place in the south-east, I can tell the noble Baroness that the number of reported cases in the year 2000 was 47, which is below that recorded for 1999, when the number stood at 57, and, indeed, below that for 1998 when the figure was 64. There was a leap in the number for the year 1998 which was due to a change in practice that encouraged the greater reporting of any overload on controllers.

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My Lords, if the helicopters fly below it and the air ambulances fly above, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House who uses this airspace? Is it confined to those with private planes? If that is so, should not those who want it pay for it?

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My Lords, there are many other aircraft that take advantage of LARS. I should emphasis again the importance of LARS to the general aviation community. I can tell my noble friend that there are other procedures for avoiding or minimising collisions which are used by crop-spraying aircraft and by the aircraft or the helicopters that inspect pipelines, and so on. However, as far as I am aware, there seems to be an agreement inside the aviation community at present that the cost of this service can be borne by the commercial sector and that the general aviation sector should have advantage of it without any rancour.