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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:51 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:51 pm, 6th February 2020

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to go further than my brief.

I recognise the worry that the new system might include a single centre with a consequent single point of failure. I also hear the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns about retaining skilled jobs in the peripheral areas and the potential wider impact on the local community and economy. The air traffic management system programme across the highlands seeks to bring together air traffic management for a number of airports in one location, as he set out. Innovative approaches to air traffic control have already been implemented successfully elsewhere, such as in Scandinavia in 2015 and at Cranfield in 2018. London City airport plans to launch its digital remote air traffic control tower later this year, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. There are precedents for the centralisation of air traffic control. I do not share the universal scepticism about it as a model of provision, and I have not encountered that scepticism when visiting air traffic control towers around the country, many of which are at high altitude, so full 360° visibility of the surrounding area is often not possible due to cloud.

Air traffic control arrangements are a commercial matter for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. I read today the debate that occurred in the Scottish Parliament, which was led by the right hon. Gentleman’s MSP colleagues, Beatrice Wishart and Liam McArthur. It was a cross-party debate, with concerns raised by Members from all the political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament. I noted Michael Matheson’s response too.

I am now aware that Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd will undertake an island impact assessment in line with the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. I assure the Chamber that, before any new air traffic management system could take effect, the CAA would need to approve it. In giving its approval, the CAA would be bound by its overarching duty for the maintenance of air safety, so Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd will need to make sure that its proposals satisfy the local conditions. The CAA will not accept the safety case if all that can be said is, “Well, it worked at London City.”

The right hon. Gentleman’s points about the road cutting across the runway are germane to what HIAL has to prove to the CAA. I assure him that it will be treated as a single isolated application, not just one of many, so it will recognise those local conditions definitively. I note his observations about board membership; I am sure that Mr Matheson did as well. I note his comments about why Inverness was selected; I gather that was down to a staff survey. I also believe in the importance of an ongoing conversation with the CAA about many of these issues, not least the resilience of the digital connection, which he referred to.

More widely, I recognise that Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is a vital part of the community across the north of Scotland. I have embarked on a review of regional airports and regional connectivity, and I look forward to visiting Scotland. I have not got there yet, but it may well be that Kirkwall and Sumburgh are on my schedule. I did three visits in Northern Ireland on Monday, so I am sure I can fit more in across the Highlands as a whole. I hope that if I am in Shetland or Orkney and the right hon. Gentleman is too, he will join me on my visit and we can see the roads running across the runway for ourselves.

Douglas Chapman made a number of interesting additional points that I will try to cover as best I can. It was rather difficult to prepare for the debate, because it was so widely set. I wondered who would attend and what issues they would raise. Many of the hon. Members I predicted would attend are not here and some of the issues that I did not predict have arisen. Such is the joy of having officials to tell me what to say occasionally.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns in the light of our departure from the European Union. Historically, aviation safety across the world has been led by this country and by the CAA. We remain a leading player in the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We have always been a leading player in the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. Our expertise is valued around the world. One of the CAA’s major roles is to provide services across the world to improve aviation safety. I do not think for a moment that that expertise, or the appetite for it, will be diminished. We take that very seriously.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the various freedoms that enable as broad a range of destinations as possible to be served. I am sure he agrees that it is in no one’s interests to diminish that ability. Our objective in any future relationship is to agree as ambitious and comprehensive an air transport agreement as possible with the EU. I am confident that we can do so in the timescales described.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the interesting issue of drones and the extent to which technology is outpacing our ability to legislate. That is often a challenge in government and in Parliament. In many Bill Committees that I have sat on, we have tried to see into the future, but the important thing is to have a flexible approach to legislation, so that as things develop over time, the regulations can also develop. It is as much about the framework that we set up as about prescribing exhaustively every possible combination of circumstances that may or may not occur in future. All too often, our predictions about the future prove entirely wrong. I remember watching “Tomorrow’s World” as a teenager; I thought I would have my own jet pack by now, but I still take the District and Circle lines.

Our concept of the future can be misleading, but we can get the framework right. As the hon. Gentleman correctly points out, the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill is in the House of Lords and will come down here. If he were the SNP Member on that Bill Committee, I would be delighted. He could help with my futurology by making sure that the legislation is fit for purpose.

I thank Karl Turner for his comments and for allowing me to focus on the concerns of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I thank you, too, Mr Bone.