Loophole on foreign aircraft to be closed

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Tighter controls over foreign- licensed aircraft are likely to be introduced next summer because of concern over a series of air-safety incidents.

Sir Malcolm Field, the new chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, said yesterday that a review of the regulatory regime for foreign aircraft being operated from the UK is to be carried out in the autumn.

The issue has become prominent because of the crash of the Turkish-registered Birgenair Boeing 757 in the Dominican Republic in February. The jet was carrying German tourists between the Caribbean and Germany, and yet the aircraft was registered and regulated in a third country.

Last month, passengers in Florida due to travel on an Antiguan-licensed DC10 belonging to Excalibur Airways refused to board the aircraft because smoke had entered the cabin. The airline went out of business shortly afterwards.

Similarly, British holidaymakers have found themselves on various foreign- owned aircraft although they have booked with British tour companies.

Yesterday, at the launch of the CAA's annual report, Mike Willett, head of safety operations, said that once given a licence, British tour operators could charter aircraft from any carrier in the world. He said that most airlines were safe and "there are very few airlines that I would not fly in".

The CAA accepts that there is a loophole. Aircraft from carriers which are registered in Third World countries are often not maintained to the same standards as those of Western operators, even though the countries are signatories to the Chicago Convention which lays down international safety standards.

The problem for the CAA is that regulating these carriers will be expensive, involving both inspection of maintenance records and checking cockpit procedures of air crew.

Moreover, if tour operators are banned from calling in these aircraft at short notice, then passengers at peak times in the summer are likely to find themselves stranded for long periods either in Britain or at their foreign destination because no replacement aircraft will be available.

Concern over safety will be highlighted again later this week when British Midland is prosecuted at Luton Crown Court over an incident in which one of its Boeing 737s, with 180 people on board, nearly ran out of oil because of a maintenance error. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch will ask the CAA for a review of maintenance procedures following this incident and two others where lives were put at risk by maintenance failures of UK operators.

The CAA also warned yesterday that passengers faced a small surcharge next year to ensure that people stranded as a result of the failure of travel firms can be be brought back or be reimbursed.

The Air Travel Trust Fund, set up in the 1970s following the failure of the tour operator Clarkson, has been depleted by a recent spate of tour firm failures and the CAA has had to borrow pounds 3m to compensate passengers and run emergency charter flights. Now, legislation to levy about 50p off each passenger is likely to be introduced in the autumn.