HC Deb 11 February 1991 vol 185 cc603-5
8. Mr. Haselhurst

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received regarding the advice from the Civil Aviation Authority on traffic distribution rules at London's airports.

Mr. Rifkind

I have received a number of representations about different aspects of the authority's advice.

Mr. Haselhurst

Has it been put to my right hon. and learned Friend that to abandon most of the traffic distribution rules, as the Civil Aviation Authority recommends, would place much greater pressure on scarce slots at Heathrow? That inevitably raises questions of capacity at the airport. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Miami international airport, whose runway configuration is similar to that of Heathrow, manages 120 movements an hour, compared with about 80 at Heathrow?

Mr. Rifkind

The number of slots available relates to the capacity of the runway and terminal facilities. The traffic distribution rules relate to whether the Government should continue to insist, irrespective of capacity, that only certain airlines should be allowed to use Heathrow airport. The two issues are not connected, in the sense that a decision on the latter will have no consequences, so far as the Government are concerned, for the other issues that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the CAA has made it perfectly clear that if the traffic rules are changed as it suggests, there is a great possibility that domestic flights to and from Heathrow—such as those serving Aberdeen, Glasgow, Inverness and Newcastle—will be frozen out either to Gatwick or Stansted? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that, in addition to my representations, Lord King, the chairman of British Airways—a great supporter of the Government and of their competition policy—has strongly expressed his opinion that the rules should not be changed? Will the Secretary of State accept that combined weight of opinion and scrap the CAA's advice?

Mr. Rifkind

The idea of the hon. Gentleman and Lord King forming an alliance in respect of any matter is a novel introduction to our debates and something to which I must give all due consideration.

The CAA's only specific recommendation in respect of domestic services is that new domestic services should be permitted to use Heathrow. They are forbidden from doing so at present. I am aware of the suggestion that removing the traffic distribution rules could lead indirectly to existing domestic services being compelled to leave Heathrow. Of course, they could not be deprived of their entitlement to use the airport, but the suggestion is that BAA might increase landing charges to force out those airlines.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the CAA has the power to prevent discriminatory action against individual airlines or classes of airlines by BAA in respect of landing charges. If we accepted the CAA's recommendation on traffic distribution rules, I should consider it most improper if higher landing charges were used to try to force out an individual airline that would otherwise be entitled to use Heathrow.

Mr. Robert Hicks

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the possible adverse affects—either directly or indirectly—on regional airlines such as Brymon Airways, which services the south-west? Does he agree that if those airlines were squeezed out, for whatever reason, it would have serious consequences for regional economies, especially in trying to attract inward investment? More than 80 per cent. of Brymon's passengers using the Plymouth to Heathrow run go on to or come from foreign destinations.

Mr. Rifkind

I note what my hon. Friend says and I am, of course, sensitive to the interests of regional airlines and conscious of the importance that some of them attach to using Heathrow with a view to attracting investment to various parts of the kingdom. I emphasise that nothing in the Civil Aviation Authority's recommendations would remove the current entitlement of any regional airline to use Heathrow. The concern is with regard to any future BAA landing charge policy. It is important that its right to determine landing charges should be based on proper and legitimate considerations and that such a right should not, either now or in the future, be used for ulterior purposes.

Mr. David Marshall

When does the Secretary of State expect to announce his decision on the Civil Aviation Authority's advice? Will it be before or after he concludes his negotiations with the Americans on bilateral agreements?

Mr. Rifkind

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I cannot give him a specific date. As the exchanges today have demonstrated, hon. Gentlemen and other interests have put a number of inter-related issues before the Government to which we should like to give more consideration before responding to the Civil Aviation Authority. On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the Bermuda 2 negotiations with the United States have not yet reached a conclusion. However, I was interested to read in The New York Times a few weeks ago an article which said: US passengers would be wise to forgo rooting for the America negotiators and instead root for the British. That seemed to be very sensible advice from The New York Times.

Mr. Mans

When taking account of the advice given in the traffic distribution report, will my right hon. and learned Friend also take into account European airlines' access to the London terminal manoeuvring area and especially the subsidies proposed by the European Commission for nationalised airlines on the continent which are both uncompetitive and unfair to airlines such as British Airways and British Midland?

Mr. Rifkind

I assure my hon. Friend that the European Commission is not proposing any such subsidy. In response to suggestions from some other European countries that they might wish to introduce subsidies in the current climate, Sir Leon Brittan, the Commissioner, said that the Commission would consider requests for approvals such subsidies against the criteria of the impact that they might have on the competitive position of airlines in countries, such as the United Kingdom, which do not intend to provide them for their civil airlines.

Ms. Walley

It is all very well and good for the Secretary of State to say that he is sensitive about regional airports. How will he safeguard their interests and how will he ensure that the local economy is taken care of? Are not shareholders concerned about maximising revenue rather than maximising services?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not want to pre-empt the consideration that I am giving to the Civil Aviation Authority's recommendations. The only way in which regional airlines' interests could be affected by the CAA's recommendations would be by what could be described as improper use by the BAA of its power over landing charges. Therefore, that matter needs to be given further thought.