Airline rejects empty tanks claim

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The Independent Online
MALAYSIAN AIRLINES is to meet government officials after allegations that an aircraft landed in London dangerously low on fuel. The Department of Transport is investigating an official report that a Boeing 747 arrived at Heathrow with two of its fuel tanks empty.

The report, from Heathrow ground handling agents, said it was not the first time that Malaysian Airlines (MAS) had been involved in such incidents. Yesterday, MAS said it had not breached fuel regulations and would be meeting Department of Transport officials "to present our records". The department could ban an airline from flying to Britain if it was not happy that its home nation's regulatory body was taking appropriate action.

In the most recently reported incident, a jumbo jet landed with 3.34 tons of fuel on board. This might not have been enough if the aircraft had been forced to divert to another airport or had been unable to land straight away at Heathrow. Malaysian Airlines is believed to have been involved in nine similar incidents at Heathrow in recent months, according to a whistle-blower's report.

The MAS chairman, Tajudin Ramli, said his airline's fuel policy was consistent with Malaysian, UK and American regulations. He went on: "Our records for the last six months show that the average fuel uplift at departure per flight to London from Kuala Lumpur is approximately 160 tons, while the average fuel level upon landing is 9.7 tons per aircraft."

There have been a number of near-miss reports recently which, with the MAS incident, raise concern over the danger London faces from a jet disaster. The number of serious incidents in British airspace is growing as air traffic controllers attempt to cope with an increasing number of flights each year. Last year 147 million people flew in and out of Britain. The national air traffic centre at West Drayton, near Heathrow, handled more than 1.7 million flights in 1998, a 7.5 per cent increase on 1997 and 50 per cent above the 1992 level. Aircraft regularly fly over London carrying too little fuel to cope with diversion or an emergency, an authority on aircraft safety said yesterday.

Commenting on the Malaysian jumbo incident, David Learmount, the operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine, who revealed the story, said: "This is serious. It really is boneshaking." Landing with nearly empty tanks probably happened regularly, he said, adding: "But this is the first time we have come across a serial offender. Every airline is likely to have done something like this at least once ... But in a relatively short period [MAS has done this] 10 times."

The most recent incident involving MAS, believed to have happened two weeks ago, was reported to the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme, a Government-backed organisation designed to encourage whistle-blowers. According to Mr Learmount, a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) investigation found out from refuelling records that the 747 landed with just three tons of fuel. British aviation rules require a minimum of 4.5 tons and British Airways requires nine tons.

Further investigation revealed another nine similar cases involving MAS.

Last Thursday a 737 and a 757 were involved in a near-miss, and on 15 April a Gatwick-bound BA 737 was thought to have been only four seconds from hitting a United Airlines 777 bound for Heathrow after the aircraft were both accidentally put on the same flight altitude.

The Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, an air safety campaigner, said yesterday: "It is clear that the number of serious air incidents is growing faster than the increase in air traffic."