This debate is about aviation safety and the issues raised by an incident in April 2019 when a flight from Kirkwall Airport, which serves Orkney, bound for Edinburgh took off after air traffic controllers had gone home following the end of their shift. The Loganair plane with 33 passengers and three crew on board arrived safely in Edinburgh after taking off at 8.45 pm – an hour later than scheduled and three-quarters of an hour after air traffic controllers finished work. Both Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), which operates Kirkwall Airport, and airline Loganair said at the time that there was no breach of rules or aircraft safety. [full details in article below]

Airspace is either considered to be ‘controlled’ or ‘uncontrolled’. In controlled airspace, there is a system of structured routes and aircraft which are managed by air traffic control (ATC) services. By contrast, a large volume of airspace in the UK is uncontrolled and this is where the pilot of the aircraft does not receive a service from the ground but has to “see and avoid” other aircraft and navigate independently.

Three main organisations have responsibility for UK airspace management and design: the Government (largely the Department for Transport) is responsible for overall aviation policy; the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK’s aviation regulator, is responsible for the planning and regulation of all UK airspace, and at the operational level, NATS is the monopoly provider of en-route air traffic services to aircraft flying in UK airspace.

You can read more about ATC route structures and operational techniques in the relevant CAA guidance.

A later report in November 2019 indicated that there were concerns that the CAA’s investigation into the incident was not publicly available. That is because this falls under Mandatory Occurrence Reporting (MOR). The CAA states on its website that MORS are “treated confidentially to maintain full and free reporting from the aviation community and to protect the identity of the individual in accordance with EU legislation. Under the new regulation occurrence information can only be used for the purpose of maintaining or improving aviation safety, and the release of occurrence information to the general public or the media, including in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, is not permitted”.

The EU legislation to which it is referring is Regulation (EU) No 376/2014 on the reporting, analysis and follow-up of occurrences in civil aviation. Article 15 of the Regulation prohibits the CAA from releasing MORS data for any purpose other than ‘the maintenance or improvement of aviation safety’. The then Aviation Minister, Robert Goodwill, was asked about the blocking of public access to MORS in a PQ answered in February 2016. He said:

The open reporting of safety occurrences is vital to help ensure that significant issues can be identified and addressed before they lead to an accident. To foster open reporting the Regulation aims to create a just culture in which occurrences can be reported without fear of any detriment. To support the just culture the Regulation requires that reports be given an appropriate level of confidentiality and that information derived from occurrence reports shall be used only for safety related purposes. However, the Regulation does permit information to be released on request to interested parties that have a genuine safety related need for the information.

The Regulation also recognises the need to keep the public informed on aviation safety matters. It requires Member States to publish, at least annually, a safety review setting out the type of occurrences and safety-related information that has been reported, any trends that have been identified and any corrective action taken. In addition, the European Aviation Safety Agency is required to include information about the analysis of occurrence reports in its annual safety review. [HC WPQ 26102, 10 February 2016]

Further reading

Westminster debate on Civil Aviation Authority to be heard this week, Shetland Times, 4 February 2020

Air Traffic Management Programme FAQs, Highlands and Islands Airports, 23 January 2020

Loganair backs plan for central air control system, The Herald, 22 January 2020

Demands for end to secrecy over Loganair flight which took off without air traffic clearance, Daily Record, 20 January 2020

Carmichael: CAA stance on Kirkwall Airport incident “troubling”, Alistair Carmichael website, 11 November 2019

Air Traffic Incident (Kirkwall Airport), Scottish Parliament, 25 April 2019

Plane takes off after air traffic controllers had gone home, The Herald, 10 April 2019

CAA steps in as row erupts over Loganair flight, Shetland News, 9 April 2019

Freedom of Information Requests

FOI correspondence in connection with the April 2019 incident at Kirkwall Airport


Civil Aviation Authority – safety initiatives and resources

Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd


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