Jets `flying on empty' report suppressed

THE BRITISH and Malaysian governments have refused to release details of a dozen incidents in which foreign jumbo jets have flown over crowded British cities with danger- ously low levels of fuel. This follows allegations in May that Malaysian airlines 747s had flown into London up to dozen times with nearly empty tanks.

Despite repeated requests, Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation is refusing to publish a report into the allegations. Britain's Department of Transport has the report, but does not believe it should publish it.

The low-fuel allegations were first reported by an anonymous Heathrow worker. Suspicions were raised when a 747 pilot demanded to go to a stand nearer the runway than the one originally allocated.

The servicing team from British Airways discovered that the 747 landed with just 3.4 tonnes of fuel. Britain aviation rules require at least five tonnes and British Airways requires nine tonnes in its aircraft. Had the aircraft been unable to land at Heathrow it did not even have enough fuel to make it to Gatwick. The whistleblower's report said the same airline had been involved in 10 similar incidents at Heathrow.

According to sources close to Malaysian Airlines, the problems are associated with the company's fuel policy, which pressures pilots to carry the minimum acceptable levels of fuel. Extra fuel increases the plane's weight and therefore operational costs.

Malaysian Airlines has 14 flights a week between Kuala Lumpur and Heathrow. Depending on various factors, including weather, the aircraft should start with at least 160 tonnes of fuel on board for the 14-hour flight.

Malaysian Airlines has denied the allegations. But after a meeting with Department of Transport staff, the then Minister, Glenda Jackson, said: "Malaysian Airlines has co-operated fully with the department in reviewing their fuel policy and examining why, on a very few occasions, low levels may have been recorded at the completion of a flight."

Malaysian Airlines has also agreed to provide the British Government with weekly reports of fuel levels on all its aircraft on arrival in the UK.

Ms Jackson ordered the Civil Aviation Authority to toughen up its spot-check regime on fuel levels in foreign jets.

Under international air safety rules, complaints are investigated by the national civil aviation authority of the carrier. The Malaysian CAA report was finally sent to the British Department of Transport two weeks ago.

For a week The Independent phoned and faxed Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation and Civil Aviation Authority to request a copy. Finally, on Friday, we received an e-mail from Mr A.M. Midu Alli. In part, it read: "We wish to inform you that the Department of Civil Aviation Malaysia has no intention at the present moment to make public the report or its summary version."

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