Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill

Written evidence submitted by the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) (VTAB 02)

PART 1 - LASERS

BACKGROUND

1.1 The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) is the trade union and professional association for commercial airline pilots based in the UK. We have around 10,000 members, which represents around 80% of the UK’s commercial pilot population. We are recognised in 23 airlines including long-haul and short-haul scheduled airlines, low-cost, holiday airlines, cargo airlines, and a variety of helicopter operations including search and rescue and off-shore.

1.2 BALPA is interested in this Bill in respect of the proposed new laser offence. But we are also aware that several members raised the issue of drones during the second reading debate, and that there may be drone-related amendments proposed during the committee stage, so we will also provide some general information on drones which may be of interest to the committee.

THE LASER THREAT

1.3 Laser attacks on aircraft can be experienced at any altitude but typically occur at night on approach to or after take-off from airports. The effect can be severe: extreme dazzle and distraction of the pilots during critical phases of flight, which can seriously endanger the aircraft and its passengers and crew. In some cases permanent eye damage can occur. And this is a growing problem.

1.4 Over the years we have seen two simultaneous issues: the exponential increase in the power of available lasers, and the decreasing cost of acquiring them.

1.5 We have, over the last few years, seen an average of three to four reported laser attacks on aircraft daily, and this is likely to be an extreme under-reporting of the problem. Recently published figures from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) show that in 2016 there were 1,258 reported lasers attacks [1] in the UK against UK-registered aircraft - again, likely a drastic under-reporting.

1.6 When a pilot is hit in the eye by a laser beam he or she is initially startled. Once this natural reaction is overcome it is most likely that the pilot will have lost their night vision and therefore become what is known as "incapacitated". The only course of action on a two-crew aircraft is to hand over control to the other pilot to land the aircraft in the hope that they have not been as severely affected. The pilot of a single-pilot aircraft (a helicopter over central London for example) will not have this option. This, combined with the distraction at a critical stage of flight, reduces safety margins to an unacceptable level. Police and Air Ambulance helicopter pilots are particularly affected by laser attacks.

1.7 It should be noted that a laser attack on an Air Traffic Control Tower could cause substantial disruption and could even result in a major airfield being closed for the duration of an attack. The financial and commercial implications of this type of event would be significant.

1.8 Public Health England recommends that unqualified and untrained members of the public should not have access to lasers in excess of 1 milliwatt (mW) without good reason. Despite this, however, it is easy to purchase handheld lasers in excess of 4,000 times this power and we believe these items have little or no purpose other than as offensive weapons. If the rate of increase in power continues as it has done recently, 10,000 mW lasers will be available within a few years and these will potentially be able to incapacitate both pilots at the same time which could have disastrous consequences.

THE PROPOSED LASER OFFENCE

1.9 BALPA has been campaigning on this issue for many years. We welcome the action contained in the Bill and thank the Department for Transport for taking this issue seriously.

1.10 This new offence will make it easier to imprison those people who shine a laser at an aircraft. Until now, the prosecution have had to prove "endangerment", which can be difficult to prove, in order to achieve a custodial sentence. The lesser "dazzle or distract" offence under the Air Navigation Order [2] does not permit imprisonment upon conviction. So, at the very least, this new measure will hopefully reinforce the danger involved in shining a laser at an aircraft, and allow the courts to impose a custodial sentence, which we believe ought to be the norm.

1.11 Whilst we are pleased that the deterrent aspect of the problem will be addressed it is essential that the police have powers to stop these attacks in the first place.

CONFISCATION AND ARREST

1.12 We strongly believe that this new offence must be accompanied with appropriate stop and search powers for the police. Without it we doubt the deterrent effect will be enough to deter attacks.

1.13 Currently if a police officer goes to a field in the middle of the night, where a laser attack has been reported, and finds someone with a laser-shaped bulge in their pocket, unless they actually catch them in the act, there is absolutely nothing they can do. They need the powers to stop someone who they suspect is carrying a laser without good reason and, if a laser is discovered then they need to be able to arrest them.

1.14 This is the one area that we believe must be addressed to enable law enforcement officers to bring the perpetrators of laser illumination offences before the courts. We would strongly urge the committee to amend the Bill to cover this point.

O FFENSIVE WEAPONS ACT 1966

1.15 BALPA’s preferred method of giving police the necessary powers has always been to have lasers classified as offensive weapons under the law. This would allow legitimate uses, but also give the police appropriate powers to confiscate and arrest. The burden of proof would be on the carrier to prove the laser’s legitimate purpose, rather than the police to prove a nefarious one.

IMPORTATION AND SALE OF LASERS

1.16 We would like to know what the government is going to do to restrict the importation of high-powered lasers which Public Health England has said should not be accessed by the public.

1.17 Whilst stopping the flow of new lasers coming into the country would be a hugely beneficial step to aviation safety, the fact that there are tens of thousands already in circulation cannot be ignored. We desperately need restrictions on the sale and possession of lasers to be put into place in conjunction with the other measures. Offensive weapon classification would deal with this.

1.18 BEIS contacted BALPA about this issue and we have submitted a briefing note to them. We look forward to assisting where we can.

LABELLING

1.19 Another problem with lasers is that of labelling. It is widely accepted that the lower power lasers (<20mW) should not cause an injury. However, there have been a number of investigations by newspapers that have discovered that a significant proportion of 1mW labelled lasers that they bought online and in shops and markets have, in fact, been measured at 60, 80 and even 120mW – all of which could cause permanent eye injury and blindness. BALPA would like to see the 1mW limit remain in place as any laser can be used to startle, dazzle and distract a pilot but the labelling issue needs to be addressed.

1.20 In summary we need to stop these laser attacks on aircraft before a catastrophic event occurs. The best way to do this is to give the police more powers to stop people who they suspect are carrying a laser without good reason.

PART 2 - DRONES

BACKGROUND

2.1 As outlined above, we realise that there is no drone regulation in this Bill which had been expected. We share the views expressed by some members during the second reading debate that this is disappointing, although we understand why the DfT have had to delay this aspect due to ongoing workstreams.

2.2 Given that some drone-related amendments are likely to be tabled during the committee’s work we wanted to provide some information to the committee on this important subject.

2.3 BALPA is not anti-drone. On the contrary, we are excited about the potential that drones have and indeed we now accept appropriately trained and licenced drone pilots as members of our association.

ABOUT DRONES

2.4 The size and type of operations of drones vary widely but what all, except perhaps the very tiniest, have in common is the potential to cause significant damage to a manned aircraft.

2.5 The bestselling drone, weighs in the region of 1,500 grams and computer modelling indicates that a drone of only a few tens of grams could cause a helicopter to crash if it impacted with the tail rotor. This particular size of drone would be unlikely to cause an airliner to crash but it could quite conceivably stop an engine or significantly damage a control surface or windscreen.

2.6 Last year there were 70 reported incidents of drones being flown into conflict with manned aircraft [3] and bearing in mind how difficult it is to see such a small device from the cockpit of a fast moving airliner this could just be the tip of the iceberg.

2.7 There are professional, licensed drone operators who generally use the equipment for commercial reasons. It is important to draw a distinction between those users and "leisure" users. We believe the vast majority of professional drone operators are aware of the rules and regulations and abide by them. However, we believe the average leisure user is probably much less aware of the rules. There is also probably a degree of shared under-estimation of the potential danger posed by a drone strike on a manned aircraft.

WHAT IS NEEDED?

2.8 Education is key. The CAA is currently undertaking a big education exercise under the brand of Dronesafe, which includes the "Dronecode" [4] . Placing this code inside the boxes of new drones is a good start but with the best will in the world not everyone will read it.

2.9 BALPA suggests that there ought to be a compulsory registration scheme put in place that would require individuals to go online to retrieve an unlock code before first flight. During this process they should be exposed to the rules and have to pass a brief test before being supplied with the unlock code. Going into schools and explaining the potential benefits of drones alongside the dangers would be valuable. Automatic sense and avoid would help ensure drones move out of the way of each other and manned aircraft.

FLYING IN INAPPROPRIATE PLACES

2.10 With the rapid increase in the number of drones being flown technology has to play a part in ensuring safety of other airspace users and those on the ground. Geo-fencing would help but precautions would need to be taken to ensure that all drones (including home-built ones) contain it and that it is not possible to switch it off. There would need to be a mandatory update capability, including live updates so, for example, drone operators would not interfere with a helicopter ambulance attending a road traffic accident.

2.11 We believe geo-fencing is a valuable tool, but is not likely to be effective on its own at tackling inappropriate drone use.

CATCHING OFFENDERS

2.12 Currently if the police find a drone on a runway they have no idea, and no way of knowing, whose door they should go knocking on. A mandatory registration scheme would help identify the owner but this would need to be backed up by appropriate legislation. In order to identify the operator of a drone when it is airborne a technological solution whereby someone on the ground (a police officer or air traffic controller) can glean information from the drone needs to be in place together with an ability to force the drone to land.

2.13 We believe this track and traceability would also serve as a serious deterrent in itself as users would know that a crashed drone could be traced back to them. It would also hopefully reinforce the idea that the drone operator has significant responsibilities with regards to safety.

March 2017

 

Prepared 15th March 2017