Wednesday, September 15, 2010

We hate to say it but: We told you so. Near Collisons Over London

Above: sequence of events leading, and to avoiding the near collision as illustrated in the Daily Mail.

Since the very start of this campaign, and of suddenly finding out that London City Airport wanted to expand to bigger jets, and more flights on one of the shortest runways, and in the most densely populated area in the country, we've been worried. Worried about a lot of things: pollution and the impact on health,well being and the environment, and of course safety. Why allow an airport to expand when at the most basic it's crash zone is going to cover hundreds, if not a thousand residents in the borough of Greenwich, let alone all the other worrying issues around safety?

Over the past few years we've seen increasing amounts of residents expressing fears of what they see in the skies above them: aircraft too near to one another. Some report it to the airport/CAA too: but the aviation industry always has an answer, usually one's we've heard hundreds of times before but simply can't be proved or disproved. But of course, as it's the big world of aviationistas with money to burn on expensive public relations firms,well and truly helped along by all those tax breaks (welfare benefits in our view) and VAT free fuel - then the non aviationista resident is soon shot down with the formula responses:

"the two jets crossing one another, it's an optical illusion"

"it was an air proximity report, it wasn't a near miss"

"it was not a near collision, it was a near miss"

"there have been no flight path changes at all, but the Standard Instrument Departures have shifted to the north"

"there's no opposition to the expansion of LCY" (Ok, that one is not relating to safety, however it was a statement made by the airport around the time the legal challenge was launched against Newham Council and we'll throw it in for the sake of it).

Wake up aviation industry, government departments and quangos: there are more residents than possibly ever before in history that understand more about operations, and know when you are trying to pull the wool over their eyes. We've even see MPs/elected officials subjected to this ridiculous wool pulling from DfT, National Air Traffic Systems etc. Residents are not stupid, and never have been, and neither are our politicians: the aviation industry was simply always given the upper hand and was party to more information than we ever had access to. No longer. Residents are more educated, knowledgeable and informed than ever before on the industry and operations thanks to campaign groups such as HACAN, umbrella group Airportwatch and NGOs Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Aviation Environment Federation along with the Freedom of Information and Environmental Regulation Act. Hooray for at least some people power in this democracy.

If you approach the Civil Aviation Authority on safety concerns, (who wholeheartedly get behind the aviation industry regardless with full blinkers on, no matter what, and continue to approve larger and larger jets to operate out of LCY): well they'll call/write to the airport that you have concerns about, have a chat, ask the environmental officer at the airport to write a response and......say everything is fine! We'd be shocked to hear anything different now.

Strangely, a resident raised safety concerns about how London City Airport air traffic control were allowing jets to take off and land in the most appalling storm conditions a couple of years ago. Readers have to consider the situation of LCY's tiny runway to understand the full concern. The same jets sometimes took 3 attempts to land at the site, attempting landings from different directions and perilously aborting landings when around a 100ft or so above the runway. Some were struggling to reach a height above the conifers planted on the Royal Albert Basin at the end of the runway east bound. It must have been a scary experience for those drivers on the Sir Steve Redgrave, and Connaught bridge that day, perhaps also Canary Wharf. It was scarier still for residents watching from a living room window, thinking the unthinkable, and reminding themselves that the public safety zone is not also called also called a crash zone without good reason. Most 'incidents' - crashes to you and us (see what we mean about the language that the aviation industry use), are in the take off and landing stages.

Interestingly, and thankfully, those few weeks of terrifying activities to onlookers that year, haven't been witnessed to the same degree since. They were of course never discussed either, but who takes the concerns of residents seriously in the world of aviaiton? However concerns over the flights in the sky have increased, and this can be witnessed in the complaints being made. But despite the aviation spin on safety, near misses (or air proximity reports) are no strangers to London City Airport activities. The Wanstead and Woodford Guardian excellently highlighted the issue (and for which they famously received some bullying phonecalls from the London City Airport PR person over, to which the Editor firmly responded to with an editors comment the following week, with residents letters of support) gives a good overview of this, and we ourselves covered the amount of air proximity reports here and here.

We dare say that since the date that the blog was written, it's likely that there's more incidents to add. We certainly know we can add the Heathrow 777 and London City Airport Citation Jet July 2009 near collision, investigated by the Air Acidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) here, here and here in national headlines. You know that things are bad when even the AAIB comments: "the consequences of a midair collision in this part of the London TMA would be particularly serious because of the population density below". Not much comfort when it states that private jets are not required to be fitted with "crash‑protected recorders or flight data monitoring recorders". "Neither TCAS unit fitted to the aircraft involved had capability to record event data".

Predictably the Citation was not fitted with the equipment (and there's no confirmation at all that all the business jets are now either).Why do something unless your forced to is clearly the motto. Fortunately Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP has picked up on the issue and in her bulletin states:

"Then yesterday a report was issued about a very alarming potential for disaster over London City airport. A near-miss happened between a business jet leaving LCA and a commercial flight coming in to land at Heathrow, see here:

“The incident on 27 July last year highlighted the potential for human error to cause disaster above the heavily populated area between Hackney and Stratford where planes leaving London City airport routinely cross the flight path of incoming Heathrow-bound aircraft.”

One recommendation by air safety watchdogs is that all planes operating in this zone should be equipped with a collision-avoidance piece of equipment known as a TCAS II, which the business jet did not, and I intend to take this up with ministers.

Has anyone considered how many private jets fly out of LCY each year? It's not mentioned at all, probably because they were never recorded, but a free for all until last summer. Free for everything it seems, including the tax breaks. But be warned, the AAIB states, they investigate incidents, they don't report to apportion blame, but to make recommendations. Of more concern is that we couldn't find that anything stating that they perhaps investigated so that could identify who was responsible. But we realise that corporate responsiblity is regarded as dirty term. Some residents have asked why it took a year to carry out the investigation, quite. That this incident was AFTER the Standard Instrument Departure flight path changes signed off by the CAA in May 2009, reason given: safety and for jets, the whole incident appears to be a complete shambles and the changes appear to have seen one of the closest near collisions at LCY in the past few years to our knowledge.

It's just a shame that a lot of the media missed the real issues: there's simply too many aircraft over London, and how the 50% expansion of London City Airport flights aren't without cost and impact to Heathrow flights, queuing up for Heathrow from the east and the 13+ flight paths that cross over some areas of London, that there's a school less than 200 yards from the runway, homes alongside that school....and oh dear it just gets worse the larger the area you look at. NATS had already commented some time ago, that if all the expansions planned in South East airport masterplans were implemented then there wouldn't be enough airspace.

It seems that's the case already, and allegedly other factors such as saving money might be influencing some decisions and even the Pilots are now calling for an urgent change in regard to the London City Airport near collision, Coalition Duckhouse quotes British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) Captain Martin Alder: We don't have appropriate "failsafe" co-ordination at the moment for the unique aspects of this operation. It could best be achieved by redrawing the London City airport departures or alternatively not permitting London City to act independently.'

Julian Bray, an aviation expert commented: "Air safety is not a cash or financial issue, airlines and airport operators go into this business knowing that safety of both staff and passengers cannot under any cicumstances be compromised and that all costs to supply a level of safety are part of operational cost budgets and not subject to savings or culling."

London City Airport were predictably quiet on the negatives of operations and near collisions from it's residential hub:

London City Airport's Statement on the AAIB Report
Date: 09/09/2010
"Following the publication of the AAIB’s report into the incident at London TMA (terminal control area) on 27 July 2009 London City Airport has thoroughly reviewed the report issued by the AAIB. Following advice from NATS and the CAA procedural changes have been made which comply with the AAIB's safety recommendations."

So that's alright then. It's just a shame that sentiment isn't echoed elsewhere beyond the LCY Public Relations machine!

On the same day that the near collision report was released, comments were also released from David Miliband (really, the timing could not have been better/or worse depending upon which side you sit on expansion) asserting that a 3rd runway at Heathrow should go ahead. So where to fit the aircraft in then David, and what about the 1000s of Londoners who are dying prematurely from air pollution, which airports add to in aviation and road traffic pollution ten fold? What about the fact that there's only 1000ft between Heathrow and LCY flights, sometimes dangerously less. We hope you are prepared to take the consequences of your blinkered view of safety over London by supporting more flights in what is already the most complex, and busy flight path area in the world.

We don't need more flights, we need the flights we already have to be operated safely and more efficiently before the unthinkable happens. LCY cannot expand without an accumulative effect not only on pollution (air and noise) but also on flight paths with Heathrow and also the other various flights that overfly London and the south east.

BREAKING NEWS: Boris Johnson appears to have committed at Mayor's Question Time to be reconsidering his position on supporting the 50% expansion at London City Airport in light of the near collision last year. More to follow.