Seanad debates

Wednesday, 26 April 2006

7:00 pm

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As he is aware, during the Easter recess a Ryanair flight from Paris was diverted to Prestwick in Scotland because of a bomb scare. The diversion of the aeroplane made sense as it was escorted to the airport by RAF fighter jets, and the British Prime Minister was notified of the event. The aeroplane landed safely, but what happened afterwards was mind-boggling, as passengers and cabin crew were left on the aircraft for two hours. If the Minister of State were on an aircraft and received word — God forbid — that a suspected bomb was on the aircraft and an emergency landing was being made, he would naturally be terrified.

On the aircraft in question there were students from St. Leo's College, a secondary school in Carlow. No doubt the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, who is present, may also have had some constituents on the aircraft, as many students from Laoighis-Offaly go to that school.

The aeroplane landed safely. The obvious action to take would then be to evacuate the plane, including the cabin crew and staff. My brother-in-law happens to be an Aer Lingus captain, so it is worth noting that the cabin crew was also put at risk in this instance. The passengers and crew could have been escorted to a secure building and perhaps questioned. Instead they were left on the aircraft for two and a half hours, which makes no sense to anyone considering the situation. I know the pilots involved are very concerned and I believe an investigation is under way. I spoke to parents who were frantic with worry. They were all set to collect their children from the school trip. Then they heard the aircraft was being diverted and that there was a suspected bomb on board. The children aboard were not allowed to text their relations, although some managed to send a few texts.

The basic point is that people were left on the aircraft for two and a half hours after it landed. I am aware of a similar incident involving an Aer Arann flight in the same week or the following week but the incident I refer to must be raised by the Minister of State with his British counterpart. He or she needs to be asked why people were left on the aircraft for two and a half hours after they landed safely.

Let us imagine if there had been a bomb on the aeroplane and if it had exploded an hour after the safe landing. We would all be asking why the aircraft had not been evacuated. Have we learned anything from the 9/11 attack where, unfortunately, thousands of people paid with their lives when the second tower was not evacuated as should have happened after the first attack? I understand a message went to those in the second tower to stay there, although it was intended to evacuate the building. If people had been evacuated from the second tower, their lives and those of many others would have been saved.

This is a serious issue which I intend to pursue further. I implore the Minister of State or the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, to raise the matter directly with their British counterparts and find out why people were not evacuated from the aeroplane and brought to a secure unit where they could be questioned and allowed to telephone their relations and friends at home. Their experience was quite terrifying.

I commend the teachers involved who had to cope with their own fears while looking after the 70 students involved. It is mind-boggling to leave someone on an aeroplane in that situation after a safe landing. I look forward to the reply of the Minister of State. Questions should also be asked of his British counterparts about the questioning procedure employed. As far as I know, the students were questioned, although many were under the age of 16. I am not a legal expert but I think the law requires that either a guardian or a legal representative must be present before a minor can be questioned. That does not appear to have happened, which is a separate issue.

My question is simple. Why, when the aeroplane landed safely, were passengers and crew left on the craft with a suspected bomb on board for over two hours?

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Browne for raising this issue. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, and I are aware of the general circumstances surrounding the recent hoax bomb scare on a Ryanair aircraft flying from Paris Beauvais to Dublin Airport on 12 April 2006. Ryanair has furnished an initial report to the Department and the airline has also been in touch with the UK Department of Transport in the matter.

I have been advised that the Ryanair investigation into the handling of the incident at Prestwick Airport and the dissemination of information to passengers on board the aircraft is ongoing. As the Senator has stated there were 80 teenagers from St. Leo's secondary school, Carlow, on board the aircraft and the investigation is also examining the question of communications with the parents and guardians of these passengers. As the Senator has done, I too compliment the teachers who accompanied the 80 teenagers on their visit to mainland Europe.

A bomb threat warning on an aircraft is obviously a traumatic occurrence for the passengers and crew. It is totally irresponsible for any person to threaten the safety of any aircraft or airport installation. I encourage the police authorities to vigorously pursue any such threats made by any person against the safety or security of an aircraft in flight or any airport installation.

I hope this event will not deter the teenagers from St. Leo's secondary school from flying on aircraft in the future. I have been informed that during the incident Ryanair provided refreshments for the passengers on the flight after they had been interviewed by police at Prestwick Airport. I understand that Ryanair also provided telephone facilities for passengers, arranged for hotel accommodation for some passengers as well as making alternative surface transport arrangements for passengers who missed connections at Dublin Airport because of the emergency.

Given that the bomb threat warning was detected by the crew while the aircraft was flying within UK airspace, it was a matter for the UK authorities to implement their contingency planning arrangements to address the emergency on the Ryanair aircraft. It is vital that all responding agencies discharge their responsibilities and that the threat, real or otherwise, is addressed effectively and efficiently in accordance with approved procedures. I understand the UK authorities are reviewing the handling arrangements for this emergency.

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, has written to Mr. Alistair Darling, MP, UK Secretary of State for Transport, concerning the handling of the incident, the fact that the Ryanair aircraft was required to fly to Prestwick Airport when there were other airports in close proximity and that passengers and crew were not allowed to disembark from the aircraft for over two hours upon arriving at Prestwick Airport. We await the response.

Senator Browne asked what we have learned. The Minister has asked the national civil aviation security committee to establish if there are any lessons to be learned in so far as emergency planning procedures for aviation in the State are concerned. The committee will meet shortly. The committee which is chaired by a senior official from the Department of Transport comprises representatives of Departments, Dublin Airport Authority, airlines, the Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces, An Post, Customs and Excise, the Irish Aviation Authority and the Irish Airline Pilots Association. Needless to say we are anxious to hear from the UK authorities, Ryanair and the Irish Aviation Authority who will establish what lessons are to be learned.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. Who is in charge of an aircraft? Is the pilot flying the aircraft ultimately responsible? Can he or she be overruled by a security force in a different state? I understand that the training a pilot receives indicates that he or she has the authority to evacuate the aircraft. That did not happen in this case. While I do not expect an answer today, perhaps the Minister of State could bring the matter to the attention of his counterparts. I thank Ms Blake for her help in wording this Adjournment matter because it was quite complicated. I ask the Minister of State to keep me and the local TD, Deputy Nolan, briefed on the outcome of any meetings on the matter.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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The reason for the investigation is clear in that the aircraft was flying in UK airspace. While I am not an expert I always understood the pilot had authority but immediately the aircraft landed it appears the UK authorities took responsibility. There are lessons to be learned.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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It is like the captain of a ship.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Transport; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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If the position is different I will keep the Senator informed.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.