Safety worry as 'no-frill' airlines take off in UK

Christian Wolmar reports on the arrival of cut-price carriers
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The Independent Online
The recent passengers' revolt on two Excalibur Airlines flights and the subsequent liquidation of the airline has raised safety fears over the cheap end of the air-travel market.

There is unease is some quarters over the launch of no-frills cheap airlines such as Easyjet and Debonair which offer much cheaper fares than their more conventional rivals. On Debon-air, for example, you can fly to Barcelona for pounds 99 return, including airport tax. Easyjet offers pounds 29 one-way fares to Glasgow (although there are few seats at that price and, depending on availability, you have to pay pounds 39, pounds 49, or pounds 59).

The airlines use older aircraft, leased rather than owned, and have done away with such extra costs as food and drink. Costs are kept to a minimum by having no tickets and computerised booking systems which require few staff.

Charter firms have offered cheap fares for decades, but the entry of these new no-frills carriers into the scheduled market is a new test for the Civil Aviation Authority. Some critics argue that the authority should not be responsible for both commercial promotion and regulation of the airline industry.

The CAA argues that there is no problem with safety. It points to the fact that airlines operating out of the UK have to be licensed , the aircraft have to have certificates of airworthiness and the maintenance firms have to be CAA approved.

There is no equivalent in the aviation industry to "flagging out", the use by shipping companies of flags of convenience, which allow them to use cheaper foreign crews. Pilots for British airlines have to be licensed by the CAA and are subjected to regular fitness tests. The CAA points out that the same rules are applied whether the airline is Easyjet or British Airways. In fact, there is some irony in the fact that BA was the company that maintained Excalibur's two ageing DC10 aircraft.

Both Easyjet and Debonair use old aircraft (Boeing 737 and BAe 146s respectively) but the two are long established with good safety records. While there is some evidence that older aircraft are less safe, the difference is marginal.

Indeed, while the CAA says it treats all airlines equally, there is some suspicion from within the industry that Excalibur had been targeted for special attention because of concern over its financial viability. While the safety incidents may have contributed to its collapse, the main reason appears to be fierce competition on its principal route, charter flights to Florida, which has an enormous amount of overcapacity.

Despite the CAA's lack of concern, some air industry watchers are worried. Jeff Gazzard, one of the leaders of the campaign against a second runway at Manchester Airport, accepts that the CAA's procedures are generally tight but feels that they have a confused regulatory role: "The CAA has a duty to both promote the air industry and to ensure it is safe. There can be a conflict there."

Mr Gazzard points to the similar situation in the USA where the new no- frills company, Valujet, grew very fast as a rival to established airlines and within less than three years of its creation operated 50 jets across the US. The crash in Florida in May which killed 110 people was probably not the airline's fault as it appears to have been the result of a fire caused by inflammable cargo in the hold, but it led to an investigation of the airline which revealed serious deficiencies in maintenance procedures and the subsequent grounding of the airline.

Mr Gazzard says: "Rather than waiting for an accident before realising there is a problem, we should learn from the US experience. There should be an inquiry into how to separate out the possible conflicting roles of the CAA." He compares the CAA's position with that of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over BSE and other food scares in which it was trying both to regulate and promote an industry.