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It is a pleasure to serve under your continued chairmanship, Mr Bone, in which we all rejoice. I congratulate Mr Carmichael, not only on having secured this debate but on the way in which he presented his case. He clearly has very detailed knowledge that far exceeds mine, although I am the Minister. Perhaps we can swap places—who knows?
In recent years, we have had few opportunities to discuss this subject. Every year, the CAA’s reports and annual accounts are laid before the House and are tabled, but that rarely results in a debate. Karl Turner and I rarely get a chance to talk about these issues, so today is a good chance to do so.
We recognise that the CAA has accrued many duties down the years, including functions relating to aviation security, economic regulation, unmanned aircraft, space and consumer rights. It almost seems like a case of you name it, the CAA does it. However, the core of what it does has to remain aviation safety: the safety of passengers, crew, and the wider general public. That is partly because aviation is such an important part of our national economy, contributing at least £22 billion, along with over 230,000 jobs. For the seventh consecutive year, passenger numbers have increased. Safety is vital to maintaining that thriving aviation sector.
Regional airports such as Kirkwall and Sumburgh and the connections, jobs and investment they provide ensure that we spread those benefits across the country. The right hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about the fundamental role played by air links, both between the islands and the mainland and between the islands themselves—I know that “mainland” means two things on Shetland, not just the mainland as I understand it. I also recognise why aviation safety is especially crucial in that part of the world, given the history of the local area. The right hon. Gentleman will remember the Chinook incident in the mid-1980s.
Back in April 2019, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to the then Secretary of State for Transport to draw his attention to the incident at Kirkwall, copying us into a letter he wrote to Richard Moriarty at the CAA. The person making the report claimed that the incident amounted to a passenger flight departing from Kirkwall airport at a time when that airport was closed. The then Secretary of State noted that the incident potentially raised serious safety concerns that were being investigated by the CAA. At that time, the CAA had conducted an initial assessment and provided an assurance that no immediate or urgent safety actions were required. The CAA then intended to conduct an in-depth investigation to ensure that it understood all the facts treating to this report, and that appropriate action could be taken.
As the right hon. Gentleman has set out, the incident involved a Loganair aircraft with 32 passengers on board departing Kirkwall airport in the evening, without air traffic control in attendance and without the aerodrome being declared open through the notice to airmen process. The flight crew of that late-running flight were told that they would not be permitted to take off as the time was too close to the closure time of the airport, and an extension to the opening hours could not be granted by air traffic control due to the industrial dispute that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. Management at Loganair called their counterparts at Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to see if anything could be done to allow the flight to depart, and were initially informed by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd that this would not be possible.