Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum by Unite the Union—Transport and General Workers' Section


  The Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) and Amicus Sections of UNITE—the Union is the largest trade union representing cabin crew staff working on United Kingdom registered commercial aircraft.

  We welcome the invitation by the Select Committee for "evidence on the health effects of air travel" and we would like to specifically address concerns about the Aviation Health Working Group (AHWG) and then a brief comment on cabin air quality. This area is being covered in more detail in a submission by one of our members who is an H&S representative working in the civil aviation industry.


  The responsibility for the policy on air transport issues lies with Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) Special Transport Sectors Unit. This is part of HSE's Policy Group's Civil Contingencies and Special Sectors Division.

  The HSE's main responsibility is for policy in relation to ground operations at UK airports. However, because the Health and Safety at Work (HSW) Act also applies to aircraft in Great Britain's airspace, the HSE also needs to consider the effect of the application of health and safety legislation to aircraft in flight.

  Unfortunately the HSE does not seek to enforce the HSW Act in relation to aspects of aviation health and safety which are the current remit of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

  There is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the HSE and the CAA which established a framework for liaison between the HSE and the CAA Safety Regulation Group (SRG) which was supposed to ensure effective co-ordination on policy issues, enforcement activity, and investigation in relation to CAA/SRG and HSE responsibilities for safety in relation to aircraft and the systems in which they operate.

  In the Fifth Report of House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology published in November 2000 one of the recommendations to Government was that a central source should be given responsibility for advising Government on the issues relevant to aviation health. The Department for Transport (DfT) consulted the aviation industry and other interested parties with a number of options, the preferred one of which was to give responsibility to the CAA.

  As a result of the consultation in 2003, the DfT asked the CAA to set up the Aviation Health Unit (AHU). We would draw the Committees' attention that at the time the T&G opposed this. We believed then and still do that the HSE is the appropriate "central source be given responsibility for advising government on the issues relevant to aviation health" not the DfT. This was not a criticism of the DfT as we work with the Department almost on a daily basis. It is just that we believe that in this instance the HSE is and should be the competent authority.

  Despite our concerns the AHU was formed on 1 December 2003. Based at Gatwick within the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA's) Medical Department, its main role is to advise government, through the Aviation Health Working Group (AHWG), on passenger and crew health issues. As this is a different requirement from the safety regulation role of the CAA, the DfT retains responsibility for any policy changes arising from health recommendations.

  From 1 April 2007 the AHU's funding has been provided by industry in common with the other functions of the CAA. The AHWG is an interdepartmental organisation, chaired by the DfT, with representatives from the CAA, HSE and the Department of Health. We have major reservations about the funding of AHU which is being provided by industry. Health and safety funding should be separate and independent from any overt or covert influence of the funding providers.

  Despite the Draft Mission Statement for the Aviation Health Working Group[140] which states:

    "The Aviation Health Working Group will meet on a regular basis and will work in partnership with other interested parties to give effect to the Government response to the House of Lords Inquiry into Air Travel and Health."

  According to the CAA website the AHWG meets every two months to discuss issues relevant to aviation health and was instrumental in the decision to form the AHU. At alternate meetings, industry and passenger representatives attend. However, it is not our experience that the AHWG has met on a regular basis. A search of the DfT website resulted in minutes for the two last meeting of the AHWG dated 4 April 2006 and 23 April 2007.

  Nor do we believe it has it worked effectively in partnership with other interested parties within the industry. A specific example of the latter is the Independent Pilots Association (IPA) which was prevented from joining the AHWG. The IPA and the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) are the only other UK unions representing flight crews in the UK. The IPA is an interested party in all issues relating to aviation health and safety issues relating to cabin crew so we find it difficult to understand why they have been prevented from joining the AHWG.

  The T&G Section of UNITE—the Union has been a member of the Aviation Health Working Group since 2004 and drawing on this experience we firmly believe there is an ongoing need for a simple and effective communication system about Aviation Health issues. We believe it is of paramount importance that this communication system is facilitated by regular meetings of the AHWG.


  The T&G Section of UNITE—the union take the issue of the health and safety of its members, and indeed the travelling public, very seriously. We remain very concerned that the breathing air supply to the cabin, provided by bleed air, is delivered completely unfiltered and that this and any re-circulated air is not monitored to ensure it is "free from harmful or hazardous concentrations of gases or vapours."

  Currently the detection of potentially contaminated air relies on the sense of smell of the air crew and we believe that is totally unacceptable. Currently there is no requirement for air crew, either cockpit or cabin, to be tested during their mandatory medical for a minimum level of sense of smell.

  Until proper standards are introduced contaminated air events will continue to occur on commercial aircraft creating potentially dangerous situations for both passengers and crew.


  We are asking the Committee to recommend that the AHWG should meet on a more regular basis and to be inclusive in regard to the composition of the working group.

  The HSE should become the competent authority for civil aviation health and safety and not the CAA.

  There is a need to establish a simpler and effective communication system dealing with aviation health and safety issues.

  We are asking for proper standards to be introduced to prevent contaminated air events.

June 2007

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