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04/05/2011

Duration:
27 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 04 May 2011

John Waite investigates the Belfast commuter flight that crashed in February killing six people. He hears how the crew were inexperienced and breached air safety regulations. The company running the route, Manx 2, has since denied responsibility for the accident, claiming it is only a ticket seller and that the actual operator was a small company from Spain. The British Airline Pilots Association tells the programme that such arrangements are likely to become more common in the industry and that the government and regulator needs to act to ensure transparency for passengers.

  • Transcript

    THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

    Face the Facts: Belfast commuter flight crash

    Waite
    09.03 a.m. February 10th 2011. Businessman Mark Dickens is one of 10 passengers aboard a small commuter plane travelling from Belfast and about to land in Cork.

    Dickens
    I did what a lot of people did - I put my iPod in and dozed off for half an hour. I woke up and we were coming into Cork. I couldn't see the airport because it was shrouded in what I thought was cloud at the time - it was beautiful sunshine up where we were. We started to descend, got into the cloud and then immediately pulled out of the cloud, circled around and then we started to go down again and again once we got into the cloud a big bumpy and immediately pulled out of the cloud again.

    Waite
    After those two failed landing attempts at Cork the crew tried a third time, again they decided to pull out but this time tragically they left it too late.

    News clip
    Getting news in from RTE the Irish broadcaster: A small plane has crashed at Cork Airport this morning. The airport's been closed as a result...

    Dickens
    All I could see was a lot of dark mass. Because the plane had flipped over and the windows had smashed it had filled with mud, the seats in the plane were dark blue leather, the plane was fairly dark, as it was a cold morning everyone had been wearing sort of big overcoats and things, so all I could see around me was big dark shapes. But there were people in chairs sort of on top of me and I could hear screaming, moaning, shouting and then I heard another passenger shout - We're on fire, we're on fire.

    News bulletin
    Hello good afternoon. Six people are confirmed as having died after a plane crashed in foggy conditions in Southern Ireland. Six others are injured, two of them are critical...

    Waite
    Today on Face the Facts I'm investigating an airline crash which killed both pilots and four passengers. We'll be hearing that the crew on that fateful day were inexperienced, that they breached air safety regulations in attempting to land the plane in the way they did and that in attempting to land the same plane three times at the same airport they ignored standard pilot protocol. We'll hear too how to the disbelief of others in the low cost airline business the company running the service boasted of continuing to fly in bad weather conditions - conditions which had forced their rivals to cancel flights. Yet we've discovered that Manx 2 - the company whose logo appeared on the side of the stricken plane - has washed its hands of the crash, maintaining that it merely sells air tickets and that responsibility for the crash lies with companies which Manx 2 customers have never heard of.

    Promotional video
    Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board this Manx 2 dot com flight...

    With Manx 2 you'll enjoy personal service right from the start.

    We're proud to be a small Isle of Mann based company carrying 120,000 passengers a year to eight destinations across the UK and Ireland.

    Waite
    A promotional video for Manx 2 posted on YouTube.

    Promotional video for Manx 2
    Our chairman, Noel Hayes, takes a personal interest in every aspect of our service.

    As a small company we pride ourselves on customer service, we always go the extra mile for our customers, we hope you haven't had to go the extra mile in coming with us because all of our airports are very close to destination points. We really enjoy flying from small airports where we can give great levels of customer service, where the check-in times are reduced, where we've got easy parking, free parking at Gloucester and Blackpool, free use of the executive lounge at Blackpool - all of which we hope contributes to giving you a wonderful experience on Manx 2 dot com.

    Waite
    The video goes on to say that: "... customer comfort and safety is our prime concern". Tim Jeans was a director of Ryanair for seven years and managing director of Monarch Airlines until January.

    Jeans
    The Manx 2 strategy has been clearly to stay below the radar of the bigger players like Ryanair and Easyjet or Flybe. Their model of relatively thin routes, that's generally about a thousand passengers a month, is one that certainly if you were operating 100 or 150 seat aircraft you wouldn't be able to sustain operations on those type of routes. By using smaller aircraft - 19 seats in this case - they don't need cabin crew but they can operate at the sort of frequency that makes their product competitive.

    Waite
    And indeed the company has been in profit ever since the first six months of its operation which began in July 2006. "The Isle of Man's air links are set to be boosted with the launch of a new local airline" proclaimed the launch press release. Today Manx 2 runs services between the Isle of Man and Blackpool, Gloucester, Newcastle, Leeds Bradford, Anglesey, Belfast, Cardiff and Jersey. Last February Mr Hayes explained the secret of his success to Isle of Man dot com.

    Hayes [Interview]
    We've established ourselves I think by giving people a combination of good service, low fares and by flying to the places that the big airlines don't want to fly to. So in consequence in the last three and a half years we've opened up eight air routes, six of those are to airports which weren't serviced by the Isle of Man existing air carriers, we've picked up routes like the Newcastle routes where other retreating carriers have said they can't make money out of it, we've been able to do that by keeping our costs low and by passing on those benefits as lower fares to our customers and I think also by giving customers good service and generating word of mouth which tells other people across to come to the Isle of Man, it's a great place and there's a great airline to bring you there.

    Waite
    In September 2010 Manx 2 expanded and diversified further by taking on the former Aer Arran route between Cork and Belfast. And it was this service which Mark Dickens, who we heard earlier, boarded 12 weeks ago.

    Dickens
    I just asked my PA to book a flight for me and it came back with Manx 2 who were the operators for that route.

    Waite
    Had you ever travelled with Manx 2 before?

    Dickens
    No never, I'd never heard of Manx 2.

    Waite
    The pilot of Mark Dickens doomed flight was 27-year-old Andrew Cantle. He had a commercial pilot's licence but had been unable to find work in his dream profession. Instead he'd taken a job at Leeds Bradford Airport as a despatcher, guiding aircraft on the airport apron, in the hope it would lead to him working as a pilot. As his father, John Cantle and long-time girlfriend, Beth Webster, explain.

    Cantle
    He said look I've got to get close to working with people who fly and he would work during the night, whatever hours nobody wanted he would take.

    Webster
    He would always go in and have a chat to the pilots, ask them if there was any jobs going and one day one of the captains said oh yeah actually I'm looking for some new first officers. Out of all the people he went to flying training with he was the only one that actually got a pilot job, so he was so, so happy that he was actually flying.

    Waite
    The plane Manx 2 used on the Belfast to Cork service was a Fairchild Metroliner, with just 19 seats it can fly without cabin crew and it falls under the 20 seat threshold for air passenger duty charges. Airline executive Tim Jeans again.

    Jeans
    It's a commuter airliner, it was built largely for commuter routes within the US and some of them have found their way across the Atlantic into smaller what we might call second line routes within Europe, it's certainly what no airline would describe as a front line aircraft, it's relatively elderly and although I'm sure its safety record is similar to those of other commuter types it is not regarded as one of the more modern types and certainly would have lower costs, for example, than some of the modern turbo props that are in use today.

    Waite
    Andrew Cantle travelled to Spain and undertook a training course to get himself qualified to fly the Metroliner. On the day of the crash he'd been flying the plane for just two weeks, sometimes running night time mail freight, sometimes flying the Belfast to Cork route. Beside him on the doomed journey was Captain Jordi Lopez, at 31-years-old an experienced pilot but on one of his first flights as captain. The captain takes all crucial decisions, such as whether to divert or to abort a landing attempt and could be expected to take the controls in extremis. Jim Morris was a serving RAF pilot for 12 years, he's now a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, representing Mr Cantle's family and he says the two should not have been working together.

    Morris
    The standard procedures would be to roster an inexperienced captain with an experienced co-pilot and vice versa, so that you maintain a level of experience on the flight deck. We have a co-pilot that can't challenge a captain, does not have the experience to challenge a captain and a captain who does not have the airmanship expertise and experience to make the correct decisions.

    Waite
    European Air Safety regulations stipulate that an operator must have procedures in place to prevent the crewing together of inexperienced flight crew members. There are also strict rules about landing aircraft in conditions of poor visibility. Every plane has a so-called decision height - if the crew can still not see the runway on reaching that decision height air safety rules stipulate the landing must be aborted. For the Fairchild Metroliner this height was 200 feet, yet the preliminary accident report by the Irish Air Accident Investigation Unit clearly shows that the Belfast to Cork service only pulled out of a landing attempt at 100 feet on the first approach and at 91 feet on the second. On the third and final descent the captain called the landing off, too late as it turned out, again at 100 feet.

    Morris
    They continued that approach and they descended below the decision height and that - that is the big mistake and that is ultimately arguably what caused this accident. They broke the rules, the captain allowed the aircraft to break the rules for the third time and that's when the accident happened.

    Waite
    All airlines have a policy on the number of times their pilots should attempt to land the same aircraft at the same airport before diverting to another location. Most allow only two failed attempts and indeed the crew on the flight which crashed at Cork did inquire about diverting after the second attempt. As the preliminary accident report reveals they were told that 50 miles away at Kerry Airport the weather was fine and visibility was measured at 10 kilometres. But despite the two failures Captain Lopez assured the passengers they would land at Cork as planned as crash survivor Mark Dickens recalls.

    Dickens
    The guy on the left hand side of the cockpit came back and started to talk to us, he had a Spanish accent, and he identified himself as the captain and said that it was bad weather conditions down near Cork, that we were going to circle for 20 minutes or half an hour or so to see if they cleared so that we could go down and attempt the landing again.

    Waite
    And were the pilot and co-pilot getting agitated, was there any sign they were alarmed?

    Dickens
    Whilst we were circling they seemed to be looking at charts, looking through a book. Because it was very sunny I remember the sun really blaring through the cockpit windscreen and the Spanish pilot putting a book up at the window to stop the sun in his eyes, I remember that very clearly.

    Waite (Actuality)
    So we're going to come into Cork and this is the actual simulation of Cork Airport approach?

    Alder
    Yes, yep, so I will try and put us...

    Waite
    Martin Alder has been a captain with some of the world's largest airlines for the best part of 30 years, he also advises the British Airline Pilots Association - Balpa - on safety matters. Using the preliminary report into the Cork accident he agreed to try to reconstruct the conditions of the flight using an aeroplane simulator.

    Waite (Actuality)
    The first thing to say is I cannot see a thing because we've simulated the weather conditions on the day.

    Alder
    So we're in thick fog, yes, so we're just flying along and I can only tell where I am by looking at the instruments, at the moment I know I'm at 3,050 feet, so just a little bit high, heading 165, which is just south of - sorry east of southeast and flying at 150 knots indicated, so typical cruise speed for this type of aeroplane.

    Set the gear down.

    Waite
    Slowing down the engine I see.

    Alder
    Yeah, reducing power to slow down so that I can start the approach.

    Waite
    And you still can't see anything?

    Alder
    No absolutely nothing, I'm just relying entirely on the instruments that I've got here. Got a basic attitude indicator, altimeter, air speed, compass, vertical speed and the instrument landing system itself.

    Waite
    The crash plane was not fitted with autopilot or a flight director - computerised devices that make it easier for pilots in bad weather. The autopilot flies the plane independently to a course set by the pilot, the flight director helps the pilot line up with the runway. But with neither device fitted to their aircraft and unable to navigate by eye the crew were forced to fly entirely manually with only the dials to guide them.

    Alder
    It's a moderately full-time job - flying the aeroplane - particularly if it's low level [indistinct word], so the amount of spare capacity you have to do other tasks if you're flying is strictly limited and that's why larger aeroplanes would have autopilots, flight directors and all the aids you need to give the crew plenty of time to be able to carry out the other tasks which are just not flying the aeroplane but also navigating and managing the whole operation.

    Waite
    I mean were they attempting do you think to fly under the fog, is that why they went so low to the ground?

    Alder
    It really would be speculation but for some reason or other they flew much lower without really appreciating what they were doing.

    Waite
    And of course they did it three times.

    Alder
    Yes and that was the amazing thing - it happened three times. Most operators and just general rule of thumb is that if you've flown two approaches to a runway and not gotten in in bad weather there has to be something really dramatic and serious to cause you to make a - a dramatic improvement in weather or a serious event taking place, for example a fire on board where you've decided that the best thing to do is try and get into this runway because flying to some other airfield you may not stay airworthy long enough to reach it.

    Waite
    The plane did catch fire on hitting the ground but the evidence so far suggests not while it was in the air. Nor is there any evidence that it was short of fuel as an explanation for why it didn't divert to Kerry. All of which supports passenger Mark Dickens' account that the crew were hoping the weather would improve.

    Alder [Actuality]
    Five, six, seventy seven, we should see something, we're not at the minima, so we've got to freeze it. We've now stopped the simulator at 150 feet above the runway and as you can see I have absolutely no visual cues at all - I cannot see the runway, the approach lights or any elements that I would need to be able to carry out a visual approach to landing, I'm now...

    Waite
    It's just fog isn't it.

    Alder
    Just fog, just fog.

    Waite
    Now this is a 150 feet above the runway, they went below a hundred feet.

    Alder
    That's very, very low to be flying on instruments, by hand, with no flight director or autopilot. You wouldn't be doing it.

    Dickens
    As we came through the cloud we were only about 30 feet probably off the runway, still travelling very fast and we seemed to be over to the right hand side of the runway. I thought we're never going to land this safely, I shouted out: "We're going to crash, we're going to crash". A few people screamed and then the plane lurched sort of fairly violently to the left and then violently to the right and as I looked the wing tip, where I was sitting next to, just hit the runway, we flipped over onto the back and then just sort of slid off the runway into all this mud and there was screaming and shouting, sounds of breaking glass, all the windows smashed.

    Waite
    Thankful to survive Mark Dickens had seven broken ribs, a broken shoulder and shoulder blade, a broken collarbone, a compression fracture of the spine and nerve damage in the right hand side of his body. He had a deflated and punctured lung and his lawyer wrote to Manx 2 four days after the accident requesting financial assistance with medical expenses, as is Mark's legal right under European law. The legal reply came as a shock.

    Legal Reply
    The aircraft in question was owned by Lineus Aereas de Andalucia and was operated by Flightline Barcelona with our client, Manx 2, acting as the ticket provider.

    Waite
    The letter helpfully added a post box address in Spain but its main point was that it revealed Manx 2's true legal status. It's what the industry calls a virtual airline - it has no air operator's certificate, a licence which confirms a company's right to fly passengers. Instead it contracts airlines to run the routes that Manx 2 advertises and sells tickets for. Flightline was the airline contracted to operate the Belfast to Cork route, in turn the plane and crew were supplied by another Spanish company. Manx 2 has now abandoned that route and with it their relationship with Flightline. Such arrangements are not unheard of in the industry but as Mark Dickens told me he had no idea, as he walked through the Manx 2 check-in, staffed by personnel in Manx 2 uniforms, and out to a plane emblazoned with the Manx 2 logo, that the aircraft he boarded at Belfast was in fact being run by a small airline from Barcelona.

    Dickens
    It's news to me, certainly with the ticket that I bought, the plane that I got on, the guy behind the check-in desk, the check-in desk itself, the inflight magazine in the plane - everything suggested I was flying with Manx 2, I assumed there were an airline like Aer Lingus or Easyjet or Ryanair.

    Waite
    Mr Dickens is seeking compensation for his injuries. His lawyer is James Healy-Pratt.

    Healy-Pratt
    Manx 2 identified the Belfast Cork route as being viable, Manx 2 leased in an operator and crew to fly that route. Manx 2 marketed the route as a Manx 2 route, indeed there's a big colour photograph of Noel Hayes standing on the steps of the accident aircraft holding a pint of Guinness with Miss Belfast at the inaugural flight. Manx 2 even gave the route a Manx 2 flight code. Manx 2 had its name on the nose of the aircraft and the tail. On board Manx 2 says - Welcome on board this Manx 2 flight. We also understand Manx 2 made profit from the route. So when a judge gets to see that we believe very firmly Manx 2 will be held jointly accountable for this.

    Waite
    But what does it matter really if Manx 2 is not the airline, the actual carrier will have maintained full insurance, or should have, your clients are going to get what they deserve in due course aren't they?

    Healy-Pratt
    Compensation is subsidiary here, it is getting to the bottom of what happened - the truth. If they want to be a travel agency then they need to make that abundantly clear. One of the issues here is that the passengers and their families didn't know what they were getting and of course had a horrible shock when they were told about the accident. And a further horrible shock when Manx 2 then decided to tell everyone that it actually wasn't its problem, it was someone else's problem.

    Waite
    In preparing his case Mr Healy-Pratt might want to check out that first ever press release - dated May 15th 2006 and entitled "New local airline for the Isle of Man". The company refers to itself as "as an airline" on four occasions, no mention of its crucial virtual status. More recently Manx 2 simply refers to itself as a "locally based company". Mr Healy-Pratt might also be interested in another press release in which the company appears to boast of running flights when rival airlines have been grounded. It focuses on flights in and out of the Isle of Man in June last year and its tone has shocked some airline insiders.

    Press release
    On Saturday air services to the island were disrupted by intermittent fog, although some Manx 2 flights were consequently delayed by up to an hour the company operated all of its 28 scheduled flights. Manx 2 chairman, Noel Hayes, said: "The different operating philosophies of a locally based operator and a big operator from across were clearly demonstrated again on Saturday. Easyjet's new service was unable to land, so returned to Liverpool where the flight was abruptly cancelled. Saturday was Easyjet's third cancellation from Ronaldsway Airport in two weeks."

    Jeans
    I would personally never ever boast that I landed when somebody else didn't.

    Waite
    Airline executive Tim Jeans again.

    Jeans
    To me it smacks of unprofessional, it's irresponsible to say that you'll get people there when other airlines won't when you're relating it directly to weather because weather is one of the contributory factors to many of the world's aircraft incidents that take place now and so to imply that you'll get people there through weather that others won't is just not appropriate.

    Waite
    We'd like to have asked the chairman of Manx 2, Noel Hayes, about whether proudly using the ability to fly when rival airlines are grounded by bad weather is an appropriate marketing technique. Why, we'd like to know, did it start life calling itself an airline, only to use less transparent phrases later. We wanted to ask why Manx 2 doesn't make more clear that it is only a virtual airline or air ticket provider when the planes it neither owns nor operates are emblazoned with its logo. And we wanted to ask how a company which boasts so readily about its customer service can wash its hands of those same passengers at the worst possible time - after a serious crash. Manx 2 said it would wait to comment until a full report of the Irish Accident Investigation Unit is completed. It said the company was cooperating fully with the inquiry and that:

    Statement
    Manx 2 regards speculation or other attempts to pre-judge the issues to be addressed by the investigation as inappropriate and liable to mislead. Any questions concerning operational aspects of the flight, including crewing, crew training and crew rostering should be addressed either to the operator of the aircraft - Flightline Barcelona - or to the crews' employers and the owners of the aircraft.

    Waite
    So what of this company Flightline that Manx 2 was using? Well we've discovered it's in danger of losing its air operators' certificate, after the Spanish civil aviation authority discovered discrepancies during inspections. Flightline also appeared before the European Commission's Air Safety Committee last month, resulting in a promise to both revise its procedures over pilot selection and amend its company manual to include guidance on the use of alternate aerodromes, in other words a policy concerning diversions to other airports. Flightline has also now supplied the Spanish Aviation Authorities with what it calls a "corrective action plan", to address the immediate safety concerns. However, when we approached the company Flightline refused to comment on any of this or indeed to answer any of our questions about the crash in Cork. Someone who was prepared to comment though was Jim McAuslan, General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, Balpa, what happened in the southwest of Ireland 12 weeks ago, he says, raises many questions.

    McAuslan
    This is a growing concern for UK aviation. We've had a history of directly employed pilots with experience within weeks of experience on the flight decks, so you don't get any experience sitting next to inexperience. And the day's going to come, and the public needs to wake up to this, that when you get on to an aircraft you need to ask yourself some serious questions about how this airline is operating - who's in the front of the aircraft, what is their experience level, how is this aircraft maintained. Passengers don't want to do that and the government and regulator needs to step in here and stop this drift into a virtual world in aviation.

    Waite
    Whether regulation of virtual airlines needs strengthening or not is perhaps for another day. It's true that Manx 2 dot com has no legal obligation to the family of Andrew Cantle, the young and inexperienced pilot who lost his life trying his best to get Manx 2 passengers to their airport through thick fog, but the company does have - say his partner Beth Webster and his father John Cantle - at the very least a moral obligation.

    Promotional video
    Passenger comfort and safety is our prime concern...

    Webster
    They've had no contact with either my family or Andy's family.

    Waite
    No contact at all?

    Webster
    No, none at all, no phone calls, no letters, nothing.

    Waite
    What about getting Andy's body back home, did they not take any responsibility for that?

    Webster
    It was requested to them that they pay to bring Andy's body home but they just ignored it, didn't get a response at all.

    Promotional video
    But if issues do arise there's always someone standing by to help.

    Manx 2, good afternoon.

    Cantle
    They've never contacted me at all, I've never had a contact with Manx 2 at all.

    Waite
    Not even condolences?

    Cantle
    No, no, nothing at all.

    Promotional video
    At Manx 2 we hope all of our customers, all of our passengers are friends who enjoy flying with Manx 2, enjoy the service we give them and will come back and fly to our wonderful island again in the future.

    Cantle
    Whether you're a big airline or if you're a small airline these things happen, you don't pretend they're not going to happen, what you need to do is put things into place and the one thing you don't put into place, if you've got Manx 2 written on the side of your aircraft, is to walk away. I mean if you're so proud of what you're doing that you want to put it in 10 foot letters, I mean that is - when I went on the internet that is the first thing I saw was Manx 2 upside down on a runway - I don't expect you to just to walk away and say sorry that's it.

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