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Air Accident Investigation

Volume 801: debated on Monday 10 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decision by the Air Accident Investigation Branch to retrieve the body of Emiliano Sala and to not retrieve the body of David Ibbotson following the plane crash over the English Channel on 21 January 2019; and what plans they have, if any, to ask the Air Accident Investigation Branch to reconsider its decision.

My Lords, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, or AAIB, works independently of the Department for Transport, and in accordance with annexe 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation. The sole objective of the AAIB investigation is the prevention of future accidents and incidents. In this case, once a body was found, the AAIB prioritised its recovery; it was only later identified as that of Emiliano Sala. The Government accept that no evidence of David Ibbotson’s body was found, and so no retrieval could occur.

I thank the Minister for that Answer and for taking the time to speak to me before today to clarify the situation. However, leading on from that, what are the Government doing to crack down on grey charter flights, which is a growing problem in the air industry? They are unlicensed air taxis, which are used by footballers, celebrities and other people to bypass the system and get from A to B with a degree of privacy. It is a problem—they are unlicensed and unregulated, and we need to clamp down. One lesson comes from this unfortunate tragedy: we need to be more stringent regarding how people travel around in these unlicensed aircraft.

The noble Lord is completely right, and we share his concerns around grey charters. It is illegal to operate a commercial flight without an operating licence and an air operating certificate, which of course is overseen by the CAA. As a result of these concerns, the Department for Transport has commenced an independent review of the safety of general aviation, and one of the strands of work that is happening as part of that review is to look at illegal charters and consider what more steps we could be taking to prevent them.

My Lords, I know that the Minister is well aware of the skill of our underwater workers in the Navy, as was shown when we recovered some Russian submariners less than 10 years ago. Can she confirm that we are still world leaders in that area, or do we now lag behind? If she cannot answer that on security grounds, could she perhaps write on a Privy Council basis?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I can say that when the evidence-gathering phase following this tragic incident occurred, the AAIB worked with the MoD Salvage and Marine Operations team, which advised it on the manner of conducting the search, safety—whether to use divers—and to make sure that the ROV was operating properly. I will of course write to the noble Lord on the second part of his question.

My Lords, if I import a car into the UK and operate it, I have a limited time before I must register it here and thus obey our safety standards and insurance requirements. However, there is no requirement to reregister in the UK an overseas-registered plane, even if I am permanently living here and permanently operating it from the UK. Our safety standards are higher than those of many other countries, so many people who own planes in Britain take advantage of this loophole. Will the review that the Minister referred to also look at the registration of planes kept in the UK? It not only potentially causes safety problems but reduces the amount of money that goes to the Exchequer.

As I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is aware, the first report issued by the AAIB considered the fact that this was a UK aircraft operating between the UK and France. It would have been subject to the requirements of the US Federal Aviation Administration, under oversight by the CAA. She raises some important points, and I will certainly take them back to the team to see whether they will include it in the review.

My Lords, given that Emiliano Sala had levels of carbon monoxide in his body sufficiently high to cause unconsciousness, one could infer that the pilot also lost consciousness, although his body has not been retrieved. That would suggest that the airworthiness of the aircraft was appalling. What plans are there to make sure that aircraft taking off or landing in the UK, at any airport, have the equivalent of an MoT certificate, at least?

The noble Baroness is quite right that levels of carbon monoxide in the body of Emiliano Sala were higher than they should have been. I am sure she will have read the second report from the AAIB, which was issued last August and provided information to general aviation and others on the risks of carbon monoxide making its way into the cockpit. I cannot say anything further at this time, because the AAIB’s final report will be issued shortly. I am fairly sure that it will include recommendations on carbon monoxide.

My Lords, from the answers that the Minister has given to questions this afternoon, there seems to me to be a serious lack of enforcement of any of these regulations, whereas the Air Accidents Investigation Branch has done a great job. When we debate the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill, will we find that the enforcement on drones is better than the enforcement on light aircraft?

I am delighted that the noble Lord has made the connection between my two workstreams of the day. However, I deny that there is a lack of enforcement. We have a very good safety record in this country, and part of that is due to the fantastic work that the AAIB does in investigating accidents and promoting action to prevent recurrence.

My Lords, I understand from reading the press that a large number of private aircraft operated in British skies are registered in the Isle of Man. Is that a tax avoidance scheme which the British Government do nothing about? If so, would I be allowed to register my car in the Isle of Man for the same reason?

I am afraid that I am unable to answer the noble Lord’s question about the motivations of people wanting to register their aircraft in the Isle of Man. Anything related to a potential general aviation safety issue will certainly be covered in the review.