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Civil Aviation Authority: Aviation Safety — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:00 pm, 6th February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Civil Aviation Authority and aviation safety.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the Chairman of Ways and Means, to whom I am grateful for having been allowed this time, and the industry bodies, air traffic controllers throughout the highlands and islands and others who briefed me ahead of the debate. I place on the record particular appreciation of the Civil Aviation Authority, which took a great deal of time and trouble to talk me through some of the basics. The interest from outside the Chamber is not necessarily reflected in attendance inside it, but we have plenty of time, so I hope we can do the subject justice.

Before coming to the matters that I want to bring to the House’s attention, it is worth putting on the record why to me, an islander representing island communities, aviation safety and the provision of safe, reliable lifeline services are so important. Good transport links, and especially good air transport links, affect just about every aspect of island life in a way that is unimaginable for mainland communities.

For a businessperson in Orkney or Shetland who is required to spend time on the mainland—to see customers or regulators, perhaps—the time away from their business is critical. Those from Shetland will not necessarily want to spend 12 hours on an overnight boat to get home at the end of the day. Opportunities for young people to develop their talents in sport, music or other leisure activities rely on their being able to get that degree of competition that they may not have in their own community, which again requires travel off-island. Good transport links can affect something as simple as attending a family funeral, which can come up at short notice and to which a substantial cost is attached. An employer might give someone a day off to go to a funeral, but not three days. Most importany of all, transport links are critical to the provision of emergency services. For us, the operation of the air ambulance service is every bit as important as the surface ambulance service is to any other community.

I wish to raise two matters, both of which stem from the operation of air services within the highlands and islands, and in my constituency in particular. First is the proposal by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to centralise air traffic control—to remove air traffic controllers from seven of its 11 airports in the highlands and islands and to operate it all from one remote base, which we now know to be in Inverness. That is my most substantial area of concern, but I have further concerns, which are shared by many of my constituents who work as air traffic controllers, about the handling of a whistleblower complaint relating to an incident on 5 April last year involving an air traffic controller employed at Kirkwall Airport.

It might assist the Minister and others if I explain the role and genesis of HIAL. It is wholly owned by Scottish Ministers and operates 11 airports: 10 of them are in the highlands and islands, at Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Wick, Stornoway, Benbecula, Barra, Tiree, Islay, Campbeltown and Inverness, and there is also Dundee Airport, which was acquired more recently. The company was born out of the break-up of the Civil Aviation Authority in the 1980s, which let to the setting up of what then became the British Airports Authority, which owned most airports as a private company. I think it was fairly easily understood that the market would not provide airports within the highlands and islands, so it was necessary to find a mechanism by which that provision could be maintained effectively within the public sector. As a result, HIAL was set up.

HIAL announced a consultation and a feasibility study into the idea of a single centralised point of control in 2018. Parenthetically, the company does not have a great record on consultation. It is not germane to the debate, but it still rankles that HIAL introduced car parking charges at both Kirkwall and Sumburgh airports without any consultation. It said it knew it would get an unfavourable answer but was going to do it anyway. I think we all understand that sentiment, but as a means of engaging with communities such as Orkney and Shetland, it is indicative of a certain attitude, which permeates a lot of the company’s dealings.

HIAL announced in 2018 that it was conducting feasibility studies and consulting on the principle of moving to a single point of control. At that point it was not specified where that would be, although I think we all knew that it would be in Inverness. It was one of the least surprising pieces of news for some time when that was eventually confirmed. Since then, feasibility studies have been carried out, and last month HIAL announced that a system covering seven of its airports from this single, centralised, remote control tower would go live in 2024.

The proposal will affect no fewer than 86 jobs across the highlands and islands. To mainland communities, that may not sound like a tremendous number, but these are well paid, highly skilled professional jobs in some of the country’s most economically fragile communities. For the communities and individuals concerned, the blow will be quite dramatic.

Various justifications have been put up, principal among which is that it is difficult to recruit and retain air traffic control staff. Everyone accepts that there is a nationwide shortage of air traffic control staff, but it has not been particularly acute in the highlands and islands—at least not within most stations concerned. Some areas of the highlands and islands, as a consequence of what was described to me as poor management, have had recruitment and retention difficulties, but I do not think that a company that has problems with poor management should redesign the whole system—at least not until it has tried good management instead. A practice that continues to be beneficial when it is followed is the practice of local recruitment and training staff to work in the highlands and islands. It has proven to be profitable and stable in the past, and there is no reason why it could not continue to be so in future.

The Prospect union surveyed its members and found that 82% would be more likely to leave the company if the changes were implemented. It seems perverse to go ahead with something designed to improve recruitment and retention if the move that is anticipated leads to 82% of staff feeling it more likely that they will want to leave. Let us consider the reasons for that.

The people who are recruited and trained locally in Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and elsewhere in the highlands and islands have their wider family networks in the communities. Many were born and brought up there, or have chosen to move and make their life there. They will no doubt have partners who have careers in the local area. If you take one partner out of a community you do not expect the other partner to commute every week from Shetland to Inverness or wherever, so it is hardly surprising that the figure Prospect found was so high.

Essentially, it appears that HIAL has come to a solution without a problem. It was described to me and my colleague Beatrice Wishart in the Scottish Parliament by a respected industry figure, who said that the whole concept of remote towers is “not yet mature”. On the proposal, two years ago HIAL’s own consultants said that,

“one of the most expensive and certainly the most difficult and risky” options to pursue was remote towers.

Ahead of today’s debate, I got in touch with Angus Brendan MacNeil, who is similarly affected and has similar issues to those that I bring to the House today. He made the very good point that if centralisation can be done, it can be done in the isles; it does not need to be done in Inverness. I think the reason centralisation is not done in the isles, apart from the fact that Highlands and Islands Airports loves to centralise everything in Inverness, is that there is not the communications resilience with the island communities. If they cannot operate the whole system in the islands, they should not seek to operate part of the system in the islands. He also said that the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament must not give HIAL a free hand, and I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, however, particularly as far as Scottish Ministers are concerned, that is exactly what is happening.

There is absolutely no indication coming from Transport Ministers or the so-called Islands Minister that they are doing anything to hold the company to account for the execution of its duties, bearing in mind its original purpose as a company was to serve the interests of the highlands and islands. Parenthetically, I would say that is perhaps less than surprising given that not a single member of the board of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is actually resident in one of our island communities. As a result of the lack of direct input from our islands community, the company has allowed itself to become, to use its own words, remote and out of touch with the sentiment in our island communities.

My concerns are shared by parliamentarians throughout the highlands and islands, as well as Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council. It is not a political issue because those councils are all almost exclusively run by independent councillors, who have as their primary concern the quality of services in island communities, and they have all rejected the proposal put forward by HIAL.

The chair of the board and the other non-execs do not seem to be putting a brake on the plan. Right at the start, the chair was brought down here with the managing director to brief Members of Parliament. It seems she has been put up by the company as a cheerleader for the project. That is not my understanding of the role of non-executive directors, so I have some concerns about the way in which HIAL works as a company. It is clear that if there is to be any meaningful and substantial scrutiny of the proposal, which, as I say, is right at the heart of the provision of the most important lifeline services that we have, it will have to come from the regulator. It will not come from the company, the board or Scottish Ministers. It will be the Civil Aviation Authority that ultimately has to sign the proposal off as a safe and viable system.

I have dealt with the Civil Aviation Authority on numerous occasions during my time representing the northern isles in this place, and I have always been impressed by the professionalism and high standards that it maintains. The rigour with which it has approached concerns that I have taken to it in the past and the candour it has displayed in dealing with me has been exemplary as a public body. I say that because I am going to come to a few concerns about how it handled whistleblowing complaints in a minute. However, as far as this project and all the dealings I have had with it during my time in Parliament are concerned, I have no complaint to make.

The particular concerns that I have in relation to HIAL project and which I want the Civil Aviation Authority to submit to the most minute scrutiny are, first of all, the practicalities of how the scheme will work. It will rely on the installation and operation of remote cameras transmitting pictures of the airfield back to the remote tower in Inverness. It will also use the cameras, as I understand it, for weather observation and forecasting. In relation to the operation of Sumburgh in Shetland, a recently retired weather broadcaster described it to my colleague in Shetland, Beatrice Wishart, as “unsafe in marginal conditions”. We work at the margins a lot over the winter months in the highlands and islands.

The siting of the cameras will be crucial. During a visit to the control tower in Kirkwall some time ago, the air traffic controllers pointed out to me that they did not just have sight of the runway and the airfield from the control tower; they had a 360° view. They could see all the fields around, so could be aware of any potential hazards that there might be on the road or in the fields. It is not like the control tower at Heathrow or Gatwick. The airport sits right beside the public road, surrounded on most sides by fields and in small measure by the sea.

The question is whether we will ever have cameras that provide coverage as good as, and consequently as safe as, that provided by the human eyes in air traffic control towers. Air traffic controllers, not just in Kirkwall and Sumburgh but elsewhere across the highlands and islands, tell me that we will not.

There is also a particular concern about how things will work in Shetland, at Sumburgh airport. There are only two airports in the whole of Europe where a public road runs across an airport runway, and it is my good fortune that one of them is in Shetland. Obviously it is critical to have sight of that road. However, if the mast is sited where the road runs across the runway to enable that, there will inevitably be problems with coverage of the southern part of the airport. Doubtless there could be some technical solution to those things. It will come at a cost. I hope that the Civil Aviation Authority will turn its mind to those questions and interrogate those determined to go ahead with the project before it gives it the go-ahead.

On the siting of camera masts, the idea of a remote tower is not novel in the United Kingdom; those of us who fly out of London City airport have air traffic services provided by NATS at Swanwick. The cameras at London City airport are rated for winds up to 35 knots—or a summer breeze, as we might call it in parts of the highlands and islands. I am being flippant, but I assure the House that 35 knots is by no means unusual. In fact, I checked the forecast on the BBC website before I came here today. I am due to fly from Orkney and Shetland on Sunday afternoon, and wind speeds in the region of 40 mph are already being forecast there—and that is still just a yellow warning.

Not that long ago, I was getting on a plane at Sumburgh airport when one of my friends walked out of the runway shelter and was—as an adult woman—very nearly literally blown over. That was on one of the days when we could fly. Those weather conditions, although severe, are no by no means exceptional across the highlands and islands. The expense of producing something that is good to 35 knots at London City will be even greater when trying to produce something resilient in the highlands and islands—because it comes back: what will the consequence be of the idea that an air ambulance plane cannot be got into Sumburgh or Kirkwall because a camera mast has blown over in a gale that is entirely unexceptional in that part of the world and that should be foreseeable when plans are made for the safe provision of aviation services?

The other principal concern that I want the Civil Aviation Authority to explore is the resilience of the digital connection between the airports themselves and the remote tower in Inverness. The House has heard me bore on long enough and often enough about the poor quality of broadband provision in my constituency but, again, the service provided for London City has three levels of resilience to it. They are the one that operates, the one that will operate if the first one goes down, and the third one, which is used to close down in the event of the other two not being available. That is the very obvious standard that we would expect of something as inherently challenging and dangerous as air traffic control. From Sumburgh to Kirkwall there is only one, and if that link goes down we are surely left without any sort of air traffic control. As a consequence, the safety of flights in and out of the islands will be compromised.

I realise that those matters are not within the competence of the Minister answering today, but they are very much within the purview of the Civil Aviation Authority, for which he does have responsibility. I hope that he will impress on the Civil Aviation Authority that he expects the most thorough and rigorous examination of the proposals, when they come. I say “when they come” because I understand from the Civil Aviation Authority briefing that I was given yesterday that the case has not yet been put to it.

We have four years, and we are not yet at the point where there is a formal proposal, and my concerns and those of local air traffic controllers and my constituents have not yet been submitted. That is remarkable in itself. It suggests to me that there is a certain attitude within Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd that the proposal is going to go ahead come hell or high water, and that it has made the decisions now before even getting the proper regulatory approval.

I want to know from the Minister that there will not be any question, at any later stage, that somehow or another there is a commercial imperative: “We have spent all this money, we have installed these cameras, we have done all these things so you’ve got to authorise it or we will have wasted that money”—which incidentally, because it is a Government-owned company, is effectively public money. I want to know that those considerations will not be allowed to be part of the CAA’s examination.

I want to turn briefly to my concerns about an incident that happened at Kirkwall airport on 5 April last year. The essential context and background is that at the time an industrial dispute was going on between members of Prospect who were air traffic controllers working for Highlands and Islands airport and the HIAL company itself. The dispute was fairly rancorous and generated a deal of ill feeling on both sides. The 5 April incident that led to a whistleblower making a report to the Civil Aviation Authority happened when a Saab 2000 operated by Loganair requested start-up at 1943 hours. The airport is due to close at 2000 hours and the rule is that the air traffic controllers have to be there for 15 minutes after the departure, so it was clear to the air traffic controller that they would not be able to meet the requirement; they would be outside their hours. As a consequence, they refused permission for the plane to start.

That is completely in accordance with the regulations under which air traffic controllers work. If they choose to work outside the parameters of the regulations, that is absolutely up to them, but they cannot be compelled to do so, and I suggest that they should not be compelled to do so, whether the reason is industrial action, their concern for aviation safety, tiredness or anything else. Inevitably, there was some pushback from the flight crew and the airport management. The air traffic controllers, however, closed the airport on time at 2000 hours. At that point the Saab 2000 was still on the apron for the night, as far as they were concerned, and they went home.

As the matter was described to me, there was nothing out of the ordinary or exceptional in any way for the operation of air traffic control at Kirkwall airport. The Minister probably has something in his briefing about different systems that may operate at other airports. However, as to the work of air traffic controllers at Kirkwall, as things were described to me, what happened was nothing out of the ordinary as far as they were concerned. It was only when they reported for duty the next morning that they saw the Saab 2000 was no longer on the airport apron and had departed. In fact, what had transpired was that discussions between the airline and off-duty HIAL managers had resulted in the view being taken that they did not need air traffic control for the plane to depart. They made the necessary arrangements to depart the airport without air traffic control.

The point of significance is that the airport fire service had departed at the same time as the air traffic controllers; it was only at the point where it had been decided that the plane should depart that the fire service was called back to work. A message was passed to the air crew saying that they would be able to depart, so they boarded the passengers and the Saab 2000 started its engines and taxied from the apron on to the runway, and it was then lined up for departure. That, it has to be emphasised, was done before the airport fire service had returned, and that is a clear breach of the airport’s licensing conditions.

I have no doubt that these issues have a sliding scale, and this incident may be towards the bottom end of it, but this event is prima facie a breach of the airport’s licensing conditions. Had there been an incident, there was no system or procedure in place to safeguard the 32 passengers and crew of that aircraft, however unlikely such a thing might have been.

Once the fire crew returned, they obviously were made aware. The flight crew realised that by that time it was too dark to depart as, with no air traffic controllers in place, there was no runway lighting. The aircraft therefore taxied back to the apron to shut down, but arrangements were apparently made for a member of the airport fire service to enter the control tower, switch on the runway lights and then return to their fire service duties. It was only when that had been done that the plane was able to depart for Edinburgh at 8.45 pm, some 45 minutes after the air traffic controllers had gone off-duty and left the airport, believing it in fact to have been closed.

As a consequence, there was unsurprisingly a fair amount of local comment and a significant amount of briefing within the local press by Highlands and Islands Airports and Loganair, both on and off the record. A link was fairly clearly drawn between the question of industrial action and the decision to close the airport at the end of the shift. When it then became known that a whistleblower report had been made to the Civil Aviation Authority, that also attracted some press comment.

It was suggested on the record that in fact the air traffic controllers had somehow or other operated outside the agreement on their industrial action. I see no evidence for that, but the difficulty is the whistleblower’s report submitted to the CAA. After some considerable period of time, the CAA concluded its investigation. The issue remains in the public domain in Orkney, but we have no means of finding out the conclusions of that investigation. The investigation is held in that way, and its conclusions are kept confidential. Admittedly that is a result of the CAA operating to international standards, but it only speaks to the airlines, the airport operators and other stakeholders.

It seems to me that the operation of the procedures in this instance is extremely unsatisfactory from the point of view of the whistleblower himself and certainly from that of the air traffic controllers. Their professionalism and conduct have been brought into question in the public domain, and there is now no means of putting the record straight. The most recent public comment put into the local media was, “There is no problem here. There is nothing to see. Just move on.” As I have outlined, however, there is at least one breach of the airport licensing conditions.

I say to the Minister that the relationship between the Civil Aviation Authority and the stakeholders concerned in these whistleblowing cases does not conform to modern rules of transparency and freedom of information. A system that allows somebody to have their professionalism questioned in the way in which that of the air traffic controllers in Orkney has been, and then to have no official explanation as to the outcome of the investigation, is an unsatisfactory one. That could be remedied.

I do not know the outcome of the Civil Aviation Authority investigation, because I am not entitled to know and I would not want to know as a consequence, but Highlands and Islands Airports knows, and I think probably the airline operator Loganair knows, too. If the Civil Aviation Authority cannot put the information into the public domain, it might well suit one of those two bodies—the airline or the airport company—to put the information out there so that, for the purposes of the air traffic controllers in Kirkwall and for the benefit of public confidence in air travel in my constituency, that matter can finally be put to rest.

I realise that no other Back Benchers are present, and I have done my best to occupy the attention of the House this afternoon. It is a rare pleasure, Mr Bone, actually to be able to expound in detail on a matter of supreme importance to communities such as mine. I hope that the words in the Chamber will not only be heard by the Minister today, but by those people outside who are concerned.