European Union Aviation Safety Agency - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 19 March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:52, 19 March 2020

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Whitty for creating this debate. I too am sad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, is not in her place and I hope that the Minister will pass on the good wishes of the whole House. I am incredibly sympathetic to the Minister. He does not have to answer anything, frankly, because he is going to have to write a letter anyway. I am going to speak for nine minutes because that is what the rules say—thank you very much, Patrick. I spent 22 years in the civil aviation industry, and for nine of them I flew jet transports. I was a shop steward in the famous union BALPA, which has already been referred to. I am also a remainer, but I have to make the point that this has nothing to do with that fact; it is about sheer common sense and how to run this industry.

I would like briefly to put the debate into perspective. Deciding whether to build a washing machine to the same standard as Europe’s, so that you can sell it in Europe, is a business decision. The whole of the European market works after having created that market. Aviation is different. I think it was in 1947 that aviation created ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and it did so because it realised that civil aviation was about flying bombs over other people’s territory. It is entirely different from typical rules of trade. It is about letting 747s that are built in the US, flown by all the pilots in the world and maintained to standards all over the world, fly over London while we, as a nation—a sovereign part of ICAO—have confidence that they are not going to fall out of the sky on to this building.

That is why it is so important that this structure is adhered to. In the initial ICAO days, we were a big aviation power and had a lot of might. We had things called the British civil airworthiness regulations. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they eventually morphed into the CAA, which morphed into EASA and the FAA. EASA and the FAA between them have done a great job for many decades. Their reputations are deeply stained—almost disgustingly stained—by the 737 MAX tragedies; they failed there. But they are so dominant that every major manufacturer of jet transports will build its aeroplanes to be certificated by EASA and the FAA. Realistically, there are only two major manufacturers: Airbus and Boeing.

In many ways, the level of certification, testing and so on is beyond the minds of most people. Aeroplanes fly through the air nice and gently most of the time, but they are manufactured to standards that allow them to go through very rough air, to be handled in various manoeuvres and to crash. Quite a big chunk of the regulations is about what happens to aeroplanes when they crash; internal fittings must not fly away and be an additional hazard and so on. There is absolutely detailed certification and testing.

Does this absurd declaration by the Secretary of State mean that the CAA will genuinely certificate aircraft and their components? He has to remember that it is down to the last bolt, fastener and tyre; it is that detailed. If you look back to the days when we were in competition with the FAA and take something like the 747, the CAA of the day demanded that British test pilots fly that aeroplane to the very edge of the envelope to try to stall it, because the requirements of the British standards were such that it should be unambiguously obvious to the pilot that this aeroplane was going too slowly. They did that. Can you imagine today the idea of generating the skills necessary to do this testing and to certificate the testing that manufacturers do? Can you imagine someone sitting and watching the tests to create the certification? It will not happen. One way or another, we will have to accept the testing and standards of EASA and the FAA; they are dominant.

If, as happened in the late 1960s, the British come up with an added little bit—in those days, when we were neurotic about stalling, things called stick pushers were invented—the manufacturers would be deeply reluctant to do it, because they would have to take that modification back to the original certificating authority to prove to it that it does not actually reduce the safety. This is exactly what happened with the 737 MAX. The aeroplane had an aerodynamic characteristic that the FAA found unacceptable. A fix had to then be bolted on, which has not worked and has killed people.

It is inconceivable—unless the Minister wants to assure me otherwise; I suggest he writes a letter and does not do it now—that the CAA will develop the skills and resources to genuinely certificate aeroplanes, engines and their parts. The skills, training and involvement necessary to do so would be at enormous cost. It is impossible to believe that this decision is anything other than pure doctrine.

Going back to refrigerators, this does not matter there. If we demand refrigerators made a bit differently from European ones, it would be a daft thing to do but, nevertheless, it would not matter. Here, it matters. At the end of the day, the maintenance of aeroplanes and their crews must be done to an internationally accepted standard.

Two days ago, we heard a financial Statement. I am delighted that the highly doctrinal Government threw doctrine out of the window and are spending money like a one-armed paper hanger to solve the crisis we face. I wish that the Department for Transport would take some of that positive pragmatism and recognise in one form or another a close relationship with EASA that would allow us to certificate all the things that matter in creating a civil aviation operation and that was acceptable to ICAO’s standards. I wish the department would create a situation in aviation similar to what we have enjoyed in Europe, where we were one of the most influential countries in developing new standards and ensuring that those standards were achieved. I hope that the Minister will convey to the Secretary of State that this should be reviewed completely and judged not from a doctrinal approach but a pragmatic one, which would be cost efficient and overwhelming efficient and effective on safety.