19 June 2002

Air controller's safety row with budget airlines

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Air safety regulators have dismissed a complaint from an air traffic controller that the "aggressively commercial ethos" of low-cost airlines could endanger passengers.

The Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority said the complaint did not constitute a basis for investigation or punitive measures.

The controller's report, published as part of the industry's confidential safety monitoring procedures, expressed the view that some pilots - primarily flying for budget operators - were under "extreme pressure" to achieve punctual take-off and landing times.

It alleged that such pressure was causing flight crew increasingly to question or "react inappropriately" to controllers' instructions.

No-frills airlines aim to cut operating costs by reducing aircraft "turnround time" on the ground at airports to about 25 minutes, roughly half the interval allowed by most traditional carriers.

The report said there was "frequent querying" by pilots of the pushback-and-start order determined by air traffic control, with "aggressive attitudes" shown.

On one occasion, an aircraft approaching to land had failed to comply with the speed limit set by controllers. On another, an approaching crew had claimed they were being positioned second in the landing queue because they were "not UK nationals".

The report, which did not name the airlines concerned, concluded that such incidents remained "the exception" but it urged that they be eradicated before reaching a point "with the potential to compromise safety".

The CAA, which received the report last month, said it had no reason to pursue the matter further with the three UK-registered low-cost operators, Easyjet, Go and Buzz. An official said: "This is only one person's view and offers no hard evidence."

Scepticism was expressed about the suggestion that pilots might breach controllers' speed limits to secure earlier landings.

Any attempt to arrive faster than scheduled would be self-defeating as the preceding plane would not have cleared the runway, forcing the speeding pilot to waste several minutes conducting a "go-around".

Easyjet said it would take action against any pilot found to have ignored instructions of controllers or "exerted unnecessary pressure" on them.

Irish-registered Ryanair, the largest budget airline, maintained that the controller's report had "no basis in fact".