Jets `running out of fuel over Britain'

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The Independent Online
AIRCRAFT REGULARLY fly over London carrying too little fuel to cope with diversion or an emergency, an authority on aircraft safety said yesterday.

The claim followed the revelation that a Malaysian jumbo jet had arrived at Heathrow with so little fuel that even a slight delay could have meant that it crashed over London.

Malaysian Airlines (MAS) is believed to have been involved in 10 similar incidents at Heathrow in recent months, according to a whistle-blower's report.

The-re have been a number of near-miss reports recently which, with the Malaysian jumbo 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 a steadily 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.

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 over a period of time. 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 anonymously 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, the national carrier, requires nine tons. Further investigation revealed another nine similar cases involving MAS.

Mid-air near-misses also seem to be on the increase. Last Thursday a 737 and a 757 were involved in a near-miss, and on 15 April a Gatwick- bound BA 737, carrying 137 passengers, was thought to have been only four seconds from hitting a United Airlines Heathrow-bound 777 after the aircraft were both accidentally put on the same flight altitude. On 26 February a 737 and a private Gulfstream jet had a near-miss over Chigwell in the Essex suburbs.

The Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, a long-standing campaigner on air safety, said yesterday that he had been in talks last week with the CAA on safety in British skies. "It is clear that the number of serious air incidents is growing faster than the increase in traffic," he said.

Air traffic controllers filed a record number of "overload" reports last year (when controllers feel the volume or complexity of traffic is too great to guarantee safety). There was one nearly every week. CAA figures showed that the system was overloaded 49 times, compared with 24 during the previous 12 months and 16 in 1996 to 1997. The total number of near- misses attributed to controller error rose from 19 to 21. Mistakes by pilots led to a further 20.

The National Air Traffic Service is hiring more controllers and reorganising airspace sectors to relieve pressure on staff. The air traffic control centre at West Drayton in London is to be replaced by a pounds 340m centre at Swanwick, Hampshire, in 2002, which will increase capacity.

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