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Investigators have revealed a maintenance problem led to a British Airways plane making an emergency landing at Heathrow last week.
British Airways' procedures were under the spotlight tonight after an accident report revealed that doors on both engines of the BA plane in last week's Heathrow emergency landing drama had been left unlatched during maintenance.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the interim report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) contained "serious findings".
He added that the aviation industry must act immediately to take the appropriate safety action and ensure that all lessons are learnt from what had happened.
Mr McLoughlin went on: "Airline passengers have the right to expect to travel safely and it is the responsibility of all involved in aviation to make sure that happens."
Last week's Heathrow drama had seen an Oslo-bound BA Airbus A319 returning to the west London airport with smoke billowing from one of its engines.
Today's AAIB report said the unlatching of the fan cowl doors had not been identified before the plane took off with 75 passengers and five crew on May 24.
The fan cowl doors from both engines detached as the aircraft left the runway at Heathrow, puncturing a fuel pipe on the right engine, the report said.
The detaching also punctured the airframe and some aircraft systems and the flight crew, led by the 50-year-old captain, elected to return to Heathrow.
On the approach to land, an external fire developed on the right engine, with the left engine continuing to perform normally throughout the flight.
The report added that the right engine was shut down and the aircraft landed safely. Emergency services quickly attended and extinguished the fire.
Passengers and crew evacuated the aircraft via the escape slides, without injury.
The report said: "Subsequent investigation revealed that the fan cowl doors on both engines were left unlatched during maintenance and this was not identified prior to aircraft departure."
The AAIB said it had been provided with photographs of the aircraft taken prior to its pushing back from the stand before take-off. These photographs showed the fan cowl doors unlatched on both engines, the report said.
In its report the AAIB published a generic photograph of an aircraft showing "fan cowl doors in the unlatched condition".
The report said the aircraft had undergone scheduled maintenance overnight. This required opening the fan cowl doors on both engines to check oil levels.
The report said that plane manufacturer Airbus had recommended airlines strictly adhere to maintenance standards following previous instances of fan cowl door separation on the A320 "family" of planes, which include the A319 in last week's incident.
Procedures for maintenance checks include crouching down to see that the fan cowl doors are closed and latched, the AAIB said.
The report said that last July Airbus said there had been 32 reported fan cowl door detachment events - 80% of which occurred during the take-off phase of flights.
On some occasions, significant damage was caused to the aircraft but none of the events resulted in a subsequent fire.
"The source of ignition that led to the in-flight fire (in last week's BA incident) is still under investigation," the AAIB said.
The AAIB recommended that Airbus notify Airbus A320 family aircraft owners of the BA incident and reiterate "the importance of verifying that the fan cowl doors are latched prior to flight by visually checking the position of the latches".
BA chief executive officer Keith Williams said:
"We welcome the publication of the AAIB interim report. We continue to co-operate fully with the investigation team and can confirm that appropriate initial action has already been taken in accordance with the AAIB's safety recommendation to Airbus. We regret we are precluded from releasing or discussing any additional details while the AAIB investigation is ongoing. We commend the professionalism of the flight crew for the safe landing of the plane and the cabin crew and pilots for its safe evacuation. We continue to offer our full support to those customers who were onboard the flight."
The report today said nothing unusual was noted during the pre-flight preparations of the BA plane last week.
The pilots reported the take-off seemed normal although the captain commented that he had felt a slight bump, which he believed to be a wheel running over the runway centreline light.
Early in the aircraft's climb air traffic controllers informed the crew that the plane had left debris on the runway and the cockpit crew were later advised by the cabin crew that panels were missing from the engines.
The report said the pilots experienced a decrease in engine thrust control and a significant fuel leak loss and a hydraulic problem.
The crew declared a pan emergency - not as serious as a mayday - with the intention of returning to Heathrow.
During the approach to land, an external fire developed on the right engine and the crew declared a mayday.
Although both engine fire extinguisher bottles were discharged and the right engine was shut down, the fire was not completely extinguished. When the plane landed "the airport fire service attended and quickly extinguished a small fire on the right engine".
Remnants of the fan cowl doors were recovered from the runway. Among the damage caused by the detached doors was damage to the left main landing gear, while the right main landing gear outer tyre was damaged during the landing and had fully deflated.
The right engine was extensively fire-damaged.
The AAIB said that the fan cowl door latches are difficult to see "unless crouched down so that the bottom of the engine is clearly visible".
BA's maintenance is carried out by its own maintenance teams.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said:
"The initial report from the AAIB on the emergency landing of BA flight 762 contains serious findings. The industry must act immediately to take the appropriate safety action and ensure that all lessons are learnt from what has happened. Airline passengers have the right to expect to travel safely and it is the responsibility of all involved in aviation to make sure that happens.
He went on:
"I would like to thank the AAIB for their hard work in producing the initial report. They must now be allowed to continue with their investigation and when the final report is complete the relevant authorities will need to consider any further action necessary, in line with the recommendations."
Captain Mark Searle, the chairman of pilots' organisation Balpa, said:
"Although it is not for us to yet comment fully on the causes of this incident, the (AAIB) bulletin reflects that this was a terrific piece of airmanship performed by two very skilled pilots. A single-engine approach and landing, although practiced many times by pilots in the simulator - remains one of the most challenging manoeuvres in commercial aviation. It was preceded by the additional complications caused by multiple systems failures and ultimately an in-flight fire, made for a particularly challenging situation for the pilots. The safe recovery of the situation and the safe and successful landing and evacuation that followed was in no small part down to the high professional skill and professionalism of the pilots of this Airbus aircraft."