Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unfit for purpose? Lives at risk as decrepit air fleet fails Shetland

Sumburgh, Wednesday night. Photo:Ronnie Robertson/Shetland News

I have flown in and out of Shetland on all kinds of  aircraft.  Shorts of Belfast Flying Skips, Islanders, dodgy Cessnas, Made-in-Prestwick Jetstreams, the brilliant King Air air ambulance, Budgies (Hawker-Siddeley 748s), even the venerable Viscounts British Airways used back in the late 70s and early 80s. 

Ah, British Airways. Free booze, sometimes in very large quantities if things were becoming tricky. Who can forget the nail-biting, Budgie-buttock-clenching night we made three attempts to penetrate the thick fog around Shetland’s sooth end, each one abandoned at the last second as engines screamed and the aeroplane stood on its tail, double miniatures of your choice served after every aborted touchdown? Wild ballerina wingtip pirouettes around Sumburgh Head in high winds? Wave-height Dambuster runs from Orkney? That time a captain, on his last pre-retirement flight, decided to fly at low level from Glasgow up Loch Lomond and the Great Glen to Inverness?

Then BA offloaded everything to Loganair, and sold the right to paint the aeroplanes to something called FlyBe. Saabs, which always made me feel secure. Comforted. I liked Saabs. Reliable cars, heavy, solid, Swedish. Of course aeroplanes need somewhat different qualities from earthbound vehicles. The ability to take off being the most obvious. And land. Safely.

Loganair, on behalf of Flybe , who take the money, operate 13  Saab 340Bs, (34 leather seats, worn and rattly nowadays) and four stretch Saabs, called 2000s, seating 50. No booze, free or otherwise. bad coffee and a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer. They are not bad aircraft. Their worldwide crash record  is good. But they’re old and unreliable (even Saabs wear out) and, in the challenging (!) conditions of the Shetland run (Aberdeen to Shetland is 163 nautical miles, and should take 51 minutes), they are plainly past it.

Don’t just take my word for it. In October the pilots union BALPA complained in writing to Loganair that broken aircraft were “being returned to the line despite being unserviceable” and in some cases “aircraft retain defects that clearly affect flight safety”. BALPA subsequently stressed that their pilots would never fly an “unsafe” plane, and Loganair stated that  “the safety of our crews and passengers is and always will be our number one priority”.

But the ‘tech’ delays  have continued, public unrest in Shetland has grown and then last night, the Wednesday before Christmas, in nasty weather, a full emergency was declared at Sumburgh when a fully-loaded Saab landed on one engine. A warning light, so far, is all we know. 
How do you think it feels to be on a flight which declares a full emergency? To land in the brace position, in gusty winds, in the dark? Again? Old? With a heart condition, an ill baby, just out of hospital after an operation? To wonder if you or your loved ones will get home for Christmas? To live in a community utterly dependent on this lifeline service, and be treated, apparently with contempt not just by the private companies who seem worse-than-indifferent to the people they serve, but by the Scottish Government, which provides heavy subsidies, and the UK Government, which has authority over air safety via the Civil Aviation Authority?

I have a dozen close family members coming to Shetland over Christmas and New Year, and some of them have never been here before, never flown in anything smaller than an Easyjet Orange Charabanc, certainly nothing with propellers, something that looks like a prop from Casablanca. I want to say to them, look, trust the pilots: they won’t fly unless it’s safe. But why should we be put in this position by Loganair’s reliance on a fleet of aircraft that should have been replaced years ago? If, with take-the-money-and-paint-our-logo-on FlyBeNight, they’re refusing to invest in new hardware, how can we be sure their investment in maintenance and repair is beyond reproach?

Me, I prefer to travel by boat. Not that NorthLink, now run by Serco are above criticism. Their flat-bottomed ferries are not really suitable for the 200-mile, 12-14 hour Aberdeen-Shetland run (officially the longest and most dangerous ocean crossing in UK waters). It can be rough. As the joke goes, on FlyBe you think you’re going to die; on SercoLink you wish you were dead. Bad weather and, yes, technical problems over the festivities have seen sailings disrupted. But I always take comfort in the fact that boats sink relatively slowly. There are lifeboats.  

As far as I know, those much-vaunted lifejackets under your seats on aeroplanes have never saved a single life. But good engineering, properly maintained, most certainly has. People here in Shetland have lost confidence that Loganair and Flybe are supplying that good technology and proper maintenance. 

They are playing fast and loose with our lives. We are absolutely sick of it. And we are frightened.


Unknown said...

Great article. My last flight was on one of these crates, in horrendous conditions and I swore then that I'd never fly again. That was ten years ago!

Willie Fulton said...

Not on Tom.......joint inter island swoosh you required.....pre election, ideal time, I should have thought....have a great Xmas.