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House of Lords

Tuesday, 8th June 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Air Travel: Low Fuel Levels

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What reports they have received concerning civil aircraft on international flights carrying less than the prescribed minimum amount of fuel at the time of their reaching British airports.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, in the past two years air traffic controllers have made 12 mandatory occurrence reports to the Civil Aviation Authority about aircraft making emergency calls because of low fuel levels. As a result of priority given to these aircraft, most landed with fuel levels above the prescribed minimum. We have also been advised, through a confidential reporting system, of an allegation that one airline has operated into Heathrow airport with low fuel on a number of occasions.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his very full reply. However, does he know what the reasons are for airlines adopting this dangerous practice? Are they trying to get priority in landing when delays or diversions are necessary? Whatever the reasons, are the Government in a position to insist on adequate reserves of fuel being carried by aircraft in order to ensure safety?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the minimum level of fuel is a matter for the aviation authorities in the country which hosts the airline. Certainly, all aeronautical authorities do try to ensure the minimum fuel. As far as concerns the Chicago Convention, that is a pretty substantial margin. It provides enough fuel to make an approach and landing, to cover one miss, to fly to an alternative airport and to hold for 30 minutes, plus any contingency which the national aviation authority prescribes. So it is quite a big margin. Nevertheless, there is obvious concern that on a few occasions--we are talking about 12 occasions out of about 2 million inward flights--there appears to have been a problem. However, so far as we can ascertain, it is not a systematic problem.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, in the light of what my noble friend said about "one airline", can he tell the House what steps are being taken to ensure that sanctions are imposed or criminal proceedings taken against the airline concerned? Is my noble friend prepared to mention the name of the airline in the House

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today? Further, is there a process of upgrading the number of checks carried out both in relation to the level of fuel carried by aircraft and in relation to airworthiness?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as it has appeared in many newspaper reports, I think that I am in a position to give the name of the airline concerned--Malaysia Airlines. Its policy clearly complies with the Chicago Convention minimum and its own aeronautical authorities are insistent that it should abide by that.

Where there is a clear and systematic breach, we have on occasions suspended rights to land. As far as concerns more systematic checks, there is always effectively an automatic check through the refuelling process. I do not believe that we need more than that. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, the margin is very substantial. This is not a question of aircraft landing empty, or anywhere near empty, of fuel.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, perhaps I may rephrase what the Minister said. He said that the problem was de minimis. I think I am right in saying that he cited 12 incidents out of a total of 2 million flights coming into this country. Can he say whether this is an increasing or a decreasing problem? If my memory serves me right, we have had at least two Questions on this subject in the past few weeks.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the figure of 12 relates to the past two years. There has not been a significant increase in such incidents. I did not use the term de minimis, whatever that means. Clearly one incident is too many. We must ensure that all aircraft flying into our airports have a safe margin as regards fuel. Certainly, our own aeronautical system and our own authorities are anxious to ensure that that is the case.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, bearing in mind the recently reported incident concerning Malaysia Airlines and given the fact that there is no obligation on anyone's part, as regards a foreign registered aircraft, for reports to be made of such incidents to the aeronautical authorities or indeed to the department concerned in this country, is the Minister satisfied with the situation? Further, can the Minister tell us whether in the case of Malaysia Airlines a mandatory occurrence report was made to the Malaysian authorities? If so, was that report passed on to either the Civil Aviation Authority or the department here?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the information was passed to the British authorities and was then passed to the Malaysian authorities who have taken appropriate action with regard to their own carrier.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, if the allegation about Malaysia Airlines is proven, do the Government have the power, through the CAA or whatever, to stop

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Malaysia Airlines flying to this country for a period of six months or a year? Surely, that is the best sanction to impose to stop other airlines adopting the same tactics.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have the ability to suspend landing rights. We have used that power in relation to a Nigerian registered aircraft owned by a Ugandan carrier after we had received an AAIB report. We suspended that airline for 18 months.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, in a lighter vein, if airlines are seeking popularity through punctuality, could they not emulate British Airways and arrange wagers on early times of arrival involving charming air hostesses? I understand that a recent incident has greatly increased the popularity of British Airways.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in answering that question I would get into trouble with someone or other. Therefore I prefer to defer to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy.

Former Yugoslavia: NATO Military Activity

2.44 p.m.

The Earl of Drogheda asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they consider it is now time to halt the war in Yugoslavia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the peace deal which President Milosevic and the Serbian Parliament agreed to on 3rd June is quite explicit: suspension of NATO's military activity will occur after we see a verifiable withdrawal of Serb forces. That is what the Serbs signed up to; that is what we expect to see happen.

The Earl of Drogheda: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. It appears evident that the war will end soon. Can the noble Baroness tell us who will assume responsibility for the devastation caused to former Yugoslavia's infrastructure and its innocent civilian population as a result of the war? Who will foot the bill for that? Will Her Majesty's Government use this crisis to achieve an international responsibility for humanitarian catastrophes throughout the world which are the result of repressive governments?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that we can be cautiously optimistic in the way that the noble Earl suggests. However, I remind him that the Balkans have been littered with broken promises and we have to see that verifiable withdrawal--I emphasise this to the noble Earl--before we can state categorically that the war is about to end. Of course this crisis has highlighted the need for concentrated action to stabilise the Balkan region and the need to accelerate our existing strategies in that region and to make them more

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inclusive. The strategy that we have adopted is intended to complement the German EU presidency's initiative for a stability pact for south-east Europe. We have wholeheartedly endorsed that initiative. The stability pact will provide for a multilateral forum involving in due course all the countries in the region. That will involve a number of countries doing what we can to increase prosperity in the region and to increase partnerships based on core democratic European values.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, with your Lordships' indulgence I should like to take this opportunity to thank the Minister for all the hard work and effort that she has put in throughout the crisis in Kosovo to date to ensure that this House is fully informed both about events on the ground in Kosovo and also about the diplomatic process of negotiating a peace agreement. Confident of similar clarity to come, I ask the Minister whether she can confirm that the peace agreement taken to Belgrade by the EU envoy, President Martti Ahtisaari, and the Russian envoy, which is forming the basis for the drafting of a UN resolution, refers to the unified command and control for the effective international security presence to be deployed in Kosovo under UN auspices, and that this presence will have substantial NATO participation. Will the Minister therefore clarify which organisation will be in charge of the unified command structure throughout Kosovo?

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