Helicopter Service (Heathrow-Gatwick)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd March 1978.

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Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West 12:00 am, 23rd March 1978

I allocated half an hour for the debate to he initiated by the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather). I earnestly hope that he will keep to the half hour.

2.25 p.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

The subject I wish to raise is in the nature of a cautionary tale—or how not to inaugurate a new air route.

The route concerned is the Heathrow-Gatwick helicopter link which is, we are told, a temporary measure until such time as the M25 road link is completed. The route crosses my constituency and also the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie). It crosses my constituency at points in Esher and Oxshott.

Public reaction to this proposal has been strong, but public relations by the British Airports Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority have, in my estimation, been weak. It is also an example of the extreme sensitivity of people to any increase in aircraft noise, and this factor must be taken increasingly into consideration. The Minister will realise that there is an anomaly here. We read in the newspapers that people can still legally object to the noise emitted by animals such as geese, ducks and peacocks, yet have no statutory right to object to the noise from non-feathered flying objects.

The week before last, a series of tests were conducted along the route with a Sikorski SN60 helicopter and the results were not so intrusive as expected by many. But a great deal of hostility could have been avoided if the tests had been carried out before the objection period closed on 21st February.

The local newspaper, the Esher News and Mail, to which credit is due, took the initiative and carried out a survey immediately after the tests. The Minister may be interested in the results and the answers given by people interviewed in the sample. The first question asked by the paper was how had readers found the noise level. A total of 3·7 per cent. said that it was insignificant, 27·9 per cent. found it intolerable, 59·6 per cent. said that it was sufficient to divert from the task in hand, and 2·2 per cent. found the noise deafening.

The next question was: How did the helicopter noise compare with fixed wing aircraft noise? A total of 17·6 per cent. of those interviewed found it less noisy, 58·1 per cent. thought that it was the same, and 19·9 per cent. said that it was worse.

The next question was: How would you react if there were to be an 'unrestricted' number of flights each day?". A total of 5·9 per cent. of the sample said that they would be untroubled, 59·6 per cent. said that they would be annoyed, and 28·7 per cent. said that they would be angry.

The last question was: Was the helicopter nose sufficient to disturb a good night's sleep?". The answers were "Yes"— 72·8 per cent. —and "No"—19·9 per cent. This indicates that, although the noise levels were not as high as people expected, the new service will cause considerable concern and trouble to local residents.

The counts that we took during the tests were between 74 and 80 DBA, but this takes no account of the frequency factor, the fact that it was a weekday with a high ambient background noise level and a high wind that snatched away some of the noise. It was also winter so that few people had their windows open and no one was out trying to enjoy his garden.

Our main complaint is an environmental one, but no complaints on environmental grounds are admitted in the licensing inquiry conducted by the Civil Aviation Authority. The authority has the discretion, but is exercising it only to the extent of allowing one representative to speak on behalf of all the local councils—and there is a number involved—plus one for all the residents' associations and amenity groups involved. This means that the following groups will be unheard at the inquiry: the Oxshott residents, the Esher residents' association, the Black-hill residents' association and the Albany Close residents' association. They are all in my constituency, and I have been asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Atkins) to point out that the Lower Sunbury residents' association will not be heard and nor will the St. Anne's first school PTA.

All those groups have major complaints, but will be allowed only one representative, who will also have to represent the Local Authority Aircraft Noise Council, which is a national body, and the Federation of Heathrow Anti-Noise Groups, which covers a wider area.

Photo of Mr William Molloy Mr William Molloy , Ealing North

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the groups that he has mentioned—and I have similar groups in my constituency—are already irritated, annoyed and frustrated by living near Gatwick or Heathrow and that the sort of development to which he has referred will add to their frustration and annoyance and to the disturbance of their lives?

Photo of Lieut-Colonel David Mather Lieut-Colonel David Mather , Esher

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have in common the fact that at licensing inquiries we cannot object on environmental grounds except on the discretion of the CAA which is using it on this occasion to limit representation of all these groups to one person. Indeed, we would not have had an inquiry but for an objection lodged by the London Country Bus Services Ltd. If the complaints had been solely on environmental grounds, there would have been no inquiry.

I have a number of questions for the Minister in connection with the licensing procedure. Will the licence prescribe the type of helicopter to be used on the route? Will the Sikorski, a twin-rotor helicopter of 21,000 lbs. all-up weight, which carries about 20 people, be the only helicopter operating on this route? What about the purchase by the British Airports Authority of the Boeing Chinook? This is a totally different machine. It can carry 90 persons and has an all-up weight of 51,000 lbs. If this helicopter is allowed to operate along the route it will be a totally different type of operation.

Will the licence limit the frequency of flights? Will they be limited to daylight hours, as envisaged by the BAA? Will the licence be for a one year experimental period, as the BAA suggests and as the Minister has laid down?

If the answer to the last question is "No", the matter will be left to the BAA and we have only its word to go on. We know from our experience in recent weeks that that word has changed in relation to the conditions of the operation. If this is to be the situation, the inquiry is valueless and I must advise those who are raising objections to continue to object to the granting of the licence.

The Civil Aviation Authority has a duty to promote and control civil aviation. Environmental questions are not part of its remit and it is not interested in the fortunes of bus companies or whether new air services will have an adverse commercial effect on them. It seems that the CAA will be judge and jury in its own court and this is grossly unfair.

I am raising many important matters and the Minister seems to be in consultation with his officials. I must ask him to pay attention to the points I am raising.

There as also been a change in the conditions laid down by the British Airports Authority during the period of the objections. We were told in handouts from the BAA that it was to be a one-year application. The application now being made is for two years. We were told that the application was for limited frequency flights—two flights per hour—but it is now for unlimited flights. We were told that it was to be for daylight hours only. The unlimited aspect also affects the time of flights, and there may be night flights. We were told that it was to be passengers only, and now we are told that the application is for passengers and freight. During the period of objections, which expired on 21st February, the objectors were not informed of the changes, We have discovered them only by chance.

I have received a letter from the BAA—the Minister has a copy—of 16th March. The letter does little to reassure me. On Wednesday of last week, the day before the test flights took place, we were informed that the route had changed from the H9. The route is to be a modified H9 containing a dog leg. The route was different from that to which there were objections. Others who would have wished to object were left out. I submit that the objections were made on an entirely false premise. The objectors were conned.

The whole question of the validity of the inquiry and the objection process is in issue. The rules are evidently changed in the middle of the game. I submit that for that reason the inquiry is invalid and that it should be postponed until it is properly considered.

I bring a rather more serious matter to the Minister's attention. A constituent of mine, Mr. H. H. B. Capes, wrote a letter to The Times that was published on the Thursday of the week before last, in which he objected on environmental grounds to the inauguration of the route. My constituent holds an important post in a firm that supplies goods to British Airways. The managing director of British Airways Helicopters Ltd. telephoned my constituent's firm, spoke to someone at a high level and asked whether pressure could be put on Mr. Capes to desist in his objections. That is most improper conduct on the part of British Airways and raises fresh misgivings on the handling of the whole operation. I hope that the Minister will take note of that.

In the early stages, it appears that there was a complete lack of research to ascertain whether the right sort of link was being proposed. As far as we know, there were no alternative route surveys to decide whether the H9 was or was not the right route. An alternative has been put to me by some of my constituents. They claim that the route of the M25 motorway, which is presently being built, would have been the right route to follow. That area is already blighted. No alternative road surveys were made and there was no traffic count. In answer to a Question tabled by myself, it was said that no traffic counts or road surveys had taken place.

There was no investigation into alternative aircraft that could be used. I have an interesting letter from Shorts, the aircraft manufacturers, from which I shall quote. It reads: We at Shorts believe that the use of helicopters on this service is wrong and that apart from the operational and economic disadvantages associated with large rotary-wing aircraft, insufficient attention has been paid to the question of noise irritation to residents living in the vicinity of the proposed 'helicopter corridor'. We have made strenuous efforts to provide the British Airports Authority with a suitable alternative by offering to lease them some of our Shorts 330 commuter airliners in order to carry out a trial evaluation of them but the helicopter lobby has proved too strong. It is, however, perhaps worth saying that quite apart from the other highly advantageous characteristics which the 330 has, above all it is extremely quiet and in our view this feature is of vital importance when considering the type of equipment to be used on this shuttle service. I ask the Minister to let me know whether any investigations have been made into that sort of alternative.

This has been a sorry story. It is an object lesson in how not to inaugurate an air route. The Minister will know that those of us who deplored the cancellation of Maplin warned against the consequences of piling more and more traffic into Heathrow and Gatwick and the effect upon the people on the ground that that might have. We are now seeing our warnings coming home to roost. In this instance the effect on the environment has been ignored. However, I know that the Minister lends a sympathetic ear to our complaints about aircraft noise, and I hope that he will give this issue close attention.

We are allowed no objections on environmental grounds to the original H9 helicopter route. As the Minister will remember, there was the technical matter of the exact line of the route, and no environmental objections are being allowed. I submit that that is wrong. Attitudes must be changed, and if necessary the law must be changed. The damage is confined not only to the environment but to civil aviation, which is so important to Britain, and its public image.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) was not in the Chamber when I said that the debate would finish at 3 o'clock. However, I have seen all the motioning. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be brief.

2.37 p.m.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker for calling me. I shall take only a minute from the debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Mather).

The Minister will know that my constituency is over-flown by the proposed route. I emphasise the degree of suspicion that exists locally, which must be seen in the context of people's lack of civil rights in such areas. The Minister and I recall from our debates during the passage of the Civil Aviation Bill that people are suspicious about the ultimate intention of the applicant in this instance, along with the CAA and BAA. They are suspicious about when temporary routes will cease to be temporary and how long the activity in question will continue even when the M25 is opened.

2.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

The hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) is primarily concerned with the environmental effects of the proposed helicopter service between Heathrow and Gatwick airports, and with the procedure for the hearing of objections. I do not quarrel with him in any way for the careful way in which he has put the matter. The hon. Gentleman has constituency interests.

Esher is on the proposed flight path. However, there are many wider considerations to which he devoted only a few words at the end of his speech. Those considerations have to be taken into account—notably, the need to build up air traffic at Gatwick so as to relieve the pressure at Heathrow. As that important and extremely relevant issue has barely been mentioned so far, I shall outline the Government's policy on London airports before I deal with the specific points raised by the hon. Member.

The Government's airport policy is set out in the White Paper that was published on 1st February. It is our belief that the growth in demand for air services in the London area during the 1980s may be met by developments at the existing London airports. There is not time to debate whether we should or should not have proceeded with Maplin. I believe it to have been the whitest of white elephants. The project was abandoned. Our proposals are clearly set out in the White Paper. I do not have time to refer to them now.

The developments would all be subject to the appropriate planning procedures. They would provide a global capacity of 72 million passengers per year. In our judgment, that should be sufficient to cater for the growth in demand up to 1990.

We have adopted a sensible step-by-step approach which aims to provide adequate capacity within the London multi-airport system when it is needed. But there is one essential proviso, which is that we must be able to make full and efficient use of the available airport resources. This requires a redistribution of the load, which until now has rested so heavily and, if I may say so, somewhat inequitably on the people who live near Heathrow.

Therefore, we have stated clearly in the White Paper that in future Luton and Stansted should concentrate on short and long-haul charter services respectively, and that Heathrow and Gatwick should be the two major international airports for scheduled traffic in the London area. This is a relatively new role for Gatwick and positive steps were required to establish its reputation. For this reason my right hon. Friend announced on 5th. April last year that the Government had decided to transfer some air traffic from Heathrow to Gatwick and to ban all whole-plane charters from Heathrow so as to relieve the congestion at that airport. Some progress has been made in that direction, and some new services—Delta, Braniff, British Caledonian/Houston—are being established at Gatwick.

However, I shall not hide the fact that, while such decisions may be relatively easy to take, they are much more difficult to implement because of the resistance of airlines, which have perhaps been based on Heathrow for many years, and sometimes of their Governments, to any change in the status quo, but the fact is that Heathrow airport, without a fourth terminal—and that is subject to a planning inquiry—is nearing saturation. On the other hand, Gatwick has extensive new facilities and a capacity of 16 million passengers a year compared with a throughput of only 6·6 million passengers in 1977. Gatwick is clearly under-used, and the BAA is determined to achieve a better balance of scheduled traffic with Heathrow, and, in my judgment, rightly so.

The first essential is to continue to build up the range of services to popular destinations. There must eventually be an array of services and connecting flights, comparable with that at Heathrow, if travellers are to be attracted to Gatwick. It is also essential, in the meantime as well as in the future, to provide fast and reliable connections between the two airports, since it would be unrealistic to expect the services at Gatwick to duplicate exactly those of Heathrow.

The M25, a section of which will provide a link between the two airports, is in the process of construction. When it is completed it will be possible, I hope, to travel from Heathrow to Gatwick, or vice versa, very rapidly indeed, but at present it takes 75 minutes by public transport. We are dealing with a current problem. It is evident that such a situation cannot help the development of Gatwick, and it is for this reason that the BAA has proposed a helicopter link, to cater primarily for passengers who are in a hurry and need to catch connecting flights. This is not a novel idea. New York's three airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, are linked by a helicopter service as well as by inter-airport buses.

Having said that as a backcloth to the case, I should like now to deal with the matters that most concern the hon. Gentleman. These are the licence application and procedure, and the environmental implications of the proposed helicopter service. The House will understand that I am not able to comment in detail on the application now before the Civil Aviation Authority, or on the objections to it, because there is always the possibility when matters are before the CAA, that there will be an appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade against the authority's decision, and we must not prejudge that situation in any way. We should be open to great criticism if we were to do so.

However, perhaps I might make some general comments on the procedures. The Civil Aviation Authority Regulations 1972 lay down detailed provisions for air transport licence applications, objections and representations upon them, for hearings, for appeals, and so on. They provide, among other things, that the authority is obliged to hear only certain persons but may, if it thinks fit, hear others. These were not my regulations, but regulations laid down by the Conservative Government. In this case it has chosen to hear a number of bodies, which may be expected to express views representative of many other objections.

In deciding a licence application the CAA must have regard to its duties under the Civil Aviation Act 1971, the regulations, and those parts of the policy guidance which apply. In view of the representations made to it, I feel sure that the authority will be well aware that the guidance includes a requirement to consider environmental issues. But the authority must also have regard to a wide range of other considerations, including the Government's policy of encouraging the development of Gatwick, all of which must be given due weight.

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman—he made a specific point about this—that if there were no time limit, and if there were no restrictions on the right to be heard, it would not be possible to have a viable licensing system. The CAA could not operate with the necessary speed and effectiveness. As in many walks of life, a compromise has to be made between perfect justice and administrative practicability, and it is because the authority is mindful of its responsibilities that it has made this perfectly justifiable concession which the hon. Gentleman welcomes, as I do, although his welcome is more qualified than is mine.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the authority has decided to hear a representative group of noise objectors, who will be able to put points raised by objectors who are not being heard. In this case the authority received no fewer than 60 separate objections on noise grounds. I am sure it will be seen that the practical problems of giving all objectors the right to be heard are very great indeed.

As regards the environmental implications, I cannot comment on the substance of the objections that have been made. I shall confine my remarks to the Government's policy on helicopter routes generally and the factual background to the helicopter link proposal. The Government do not prescribe helicopter routes on environmental grounds. The only part of the country where helicopter routes are laid down is the London control zone, where they are established by the CAA, for two reasons: first, to avoid conflict with fixed-wing aircraft in this very congested air space, and, secondly, to ensure that over the large London conurbation helicopters are flown so that in the event of engine failure they can land on an open space. Within those constraints the CAA takes account of its policy guidance and tries to ensure that the routes are designed to cause as little environmental disturbance as possible. But safety must come first, and the routes are laid down for reasons of safety.

Having said that, I do not wish to give the impression that helicopter noise is of no concern. Although there are particular difficulties in defining standards for helicopters—which I shall not rehearse now—experts are working on these problems, domestically and internationally, and helicopters are now one of the major areas of our noise certification work.

Turning now to the BAA's proposals for the helicopter link, I understand the concern that BAA's decision to alter its proposed line of flight between the boundaries of the London and Gatwick control zones has caused, but I assure the House that there was no sinister intention behind this late alteration in the proposed route for the service. BAA, the helicopter operators and the CAA National Air Traffic Services had been discussing for several months the provision of procedures for the helicopter which would ensure that there was no possibility of conflict with commercial traffic within existing controlled air space, allow the helicopter to operate between the two control zones on a reasonably direct route, and allow it to operate between the control zones at a height which was likely to be above the majority of general aviation traffic in the area, thus enhancing the safety of the service.

There were a number of difficulties which had to be overcome in these discussions, including the need to find a solution which did not worsen the environmental impact either of the helicopter service or of the general aviation traffic which uses the area between the control zones. When agreement was eventually reached it was announced immediately by BAA and NATS, and the helicopter's proving flights took place over the revised route.

On the question of frequency of service, although the licence is for an unrestricted frequency, this is normal in licence applications, and the BAA has assured the Government and those who have written to it on the subject that it does not intend to operate any flights between 21.15 and 06.30, that it plans to have 10 flights a day, and that the service has been approved by the BAA board for an initial period of one year, at the end of which it will be reviewed. These are matters that could be covered in an appeal. I say that because I have only a short period in which to reply to the debate.

The CAA is able to impose such conditions as it thinks fit in terms of the licences. I understand that this is a matter for the authority, and therefore I cannot comment on it. Questions of the type of helicopter and of unrestricted frequencies are all matters that are germane to the application now before the Civil Aviation Authority. The BAA considered using a fixed-wing aircraft but concluded that it would not be appropriate for this service. I hope that the BAA's undertaking about daylight flights will be regarded as sufficient.

I hope that I have answered the points specifically made by the hon. Member, but if I see that due to the constraints of time I have not done so I will write to him within the next few days.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Before I call the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) to open the next debate, I should advise the House that I have allocated half an hour for it and I shall be grateful if hon. Members will keep to the time.