Saturday, 17 January 2015

Gatwick Airport – a critical consideration

West Sussex County Council will be debating expansion at Gatwick Airport next week. The content of a letter sent to all County Councillors is shown below:

"There appears to have been an important omission in the debate regarding a possible second runway at Gatwick Airport. That omission concerns consideration of the ability of hospitals, the emergency services, local authorities etc. to cope with an aircraft accident, or other major incident at the Airport.

I believe that the Council should insist on a second runway only being permitted if additional funding is given to those services that have to respond to major incidents at the airport. This is just as important as the infrastructure to support the airport. That funding could come from the airport operator or the Government, but to proceed without it would be reckless. 

It is quite clear that the ambulance service and hospitals are struggling to cope with winter pressures, so their potential to also cope with hundreds of casualties from an air crash must be in serious doubt. The Police have also suffered staffing cuts that affect their ability to deal with major emergencies. The ability of WSCC Social Care to provide support to uninjured survivors and relatives of the injured or deceased is another vital service that has been affected by budget cuts. 

The latest aircraft using Gatwick include the Airbus A380, versions of which carry over 550 passengers, with versions carrying 900 passengers being developed. When you consider that the aircraft involved in the Kegworth air crash in 1989 was only carrying 118 passengers, you get an idea of the significantly greater demand on local services if a larger aircraft crashes at Gatwick. At Kegworth 82 people were seriously injured and it took over seven hours to free them all from the wreckage. The local authority fire service needed 22 fire engines and over 100 firefighters at the incident.

It should also be borne in mind that the Civil Aviation Authority say that planning should consider more than one aircraft being involved in an accident, and the surroundings of the Airport should also be taken in to account. With a busy commuter line at the end of the runway, an aircraft collision with a crowded commuter train must also be considered. Casualties could run in to the thousands.

More specifically for West Sussex County Council, cuts and crewing difficulties have made the fire and rescue service much less able to cope than in previous years. The emergency landing at Gatwick Airport at the end of December showed that, instead of resources increasing to cope with increased risk, they have actually been reduced. The time taken to get resources to the airport has increased significantly, as they have to be sent from stations much further away. The proposed 2015-16 cuts will make this even worse.

When aircraft carried fewer passengers, WSFRS were able to get the full response to the airport by sending fire engines from stations no further away than Horsham. However, at the December incident fewer fire engines had to come from as far away as Bognor Regis, Shoreham and Worthing, with some taking well over an hour to arrive. With the potential for several hundred trapped and injured casualties, that is just not acceptable.

It should also be of concern to Councillors that the pre-planned response has been reduced. A public inquiry would not accept that an emergency service, given notice of a potential crash, did not use the time to assemble sufficient resources to deal with a crash. The current response would have been inadequate for smaller aircraft, so it is wholly inadequate for today’s aircraft.

Please note that the Airport Fire Service depend heavily on support from West Sussex and Surrey Fire & Rescue Services. The Airport Fire Service is only required to provide a full response to crashed aircraft within the airport boundary, and a reduced response to crashed aircraft very near to the airport. They have no responsibility for building fires, chemical incidents, road or rail crashes on or near the airport. They, and the rescue work at an air crash, are a statutory duty of West Sussex County Council.

I would urge you and your colleagues to properly consider this aspect before deciding on your recommendation regarding expansion at the Airport.

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