Alarm raised on holiday flights safety warning More jams in the skies as struggle to cope

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Indy Politics
AIR TRAFFIC controllers are finding increasing difficulty in coping with the volume of flights over southern England, ministers were told yesterday.

The number of incidents reported as "overload" by controllers at the key West Drayton facility more than doubled last year to 49, compared with 24 in 1997. "Overload" means controllers feel stretched to the limit and unable to deal with an emergency. In 1996 there were 16 such reports.

Senior MPs said yesterday they were "extremely disappointed and very concerned" that control tower staff were being asked to do too much.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairwoman of the Commons Select Committee on Transport, urged the Government to take action to ensure that West Drayton was replaced as soon as possible by the much-delayed new complex at Swanwick, Hampshire. The committee's report on aviation safety, published yesterday, also urged restrictions on the number of flights entering London airspace.

But the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said the number of near misses in British airspace last year had reached its lowest level ever, at just six. That compared with 11 in 1997 and 32 the year before.

The Commons report accepted that the British industry was among the safest in the world, but warned against complacency. It noted with "some alarm" that 24 aircraft had landed at Heathrow over the past five years with one engine inoperative. MPs urged the CAA to consider whether airliners in difficulty should be allowed to fly across central London and land at the airport.

Mrs Dunwoody said the Commons report should not be seen as "alarmist", but Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat, suggested that its contents would make air passengers "grip their seats even more tightly" and that the study's recommendations would inevitably mean more delays to travellers.

The report expressed concern that "commercial pressures" might make pilots feel duty-bound to take off on time rather than satisfy themselves about the safety of the aircraft. Slot times were at a premium and delays cost money.

On "air-rage", MPs observed that "if a passenger is allowed to get drunk whilst sitting in cramped conditions for several hours and then is told that he cannot smoke it is understandable, although not excusable, that his behaviour may be disruptive".

Without naming the countries involved, MPs ventured that southern European nations were less stringent enforcers of safety than those in the north. They also registered concern about controls over "virtual airlines", which contracted out most functions, and said the Safety Regulation Group, part of the CAA, should make sure they were properly monitored.

Paul Noon, general secretary of the air traffic controllers' union IPMS, said the Commons report was a timely warning as air traffic was increasing by 8 per cent a year.