HC Deb 10 December 1973 vol 866 cc22-5
19. Mr. Millan

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what recent discussions he has had with British Airways regarding its proposal to close down the West London Air Terminal check-in facilities.

47. Mr. Bishop

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if, in view of the current fuel situation, he will cause a review to be made of the decision to close down the West London Air Terminal check-in facilities.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

I discussed with the group managing director of British Airways on 26th November the action the board proposes to take to ensure that the withdrawal of these facilities does not cause serious inconvenience to passengers. I am satisfied that the board's plans should not result in any significant increase in fuel consumption.

Mr. Millan

Will the Minister take it that many users of West London Air Terminal, including myself, are quite unimpressed by British Airways' arguments for closing the check-in facilities, and that this view is now shared by the airline users' committee, the recently established consumer body? Will the hon. Gentleman do all he can to persuade British Airways to reverse its decision, which may cause considerable discomfort to passengers and congestion at Heathrow?

Mr. Heseltine

I have had discussions with the chief executive of British Airways, very much for the reasons to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention and particularly in the light of the consumer committee's report. British Airways has announced a number of things which it intends to do to meet the report of the consumer committee. I think that the House will wish to bear in mind also that from the beginning of October the facilities in question were withdrawn from 40 per cent. of passengers using the West London Air Terminal and, so far as my Department is aware, no hardship has arisen.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

But is my hon. Friend aware that, when this service is completely withdrawn, many people will have to go by bus and there will be no facilities for their luggage to be taken? In fact, the buses do not have that facility at present. Second, will my hon. Friend bear in mind that we are to have a new Underground railway out to London Airport, and there are no facilities on the Underground for the carrying of luggage? Will he, therefore, ask those responsible to see that these facilities are made available when the terminal is closed?

Mr. Heseltine

I think that my hon. Friend may have misunderstood the nature of the service provided by the buses. There are luggage facilities now. The only issue is whether one checks in one's luggage at the terminal or at Heathrow. The argument is that, as one has to keep specific buses for specific aircraft at present, the buses often run to Heathrow half empty, and it would be easier to provide a regular service at, say, four-minute or 10-minute intervals, without allocating specific buses to specific flights. The other question which my hon. Friend raises is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries, and I shall draw it to his attention.

Mr. Bishop

The hon. Gentleman's reply completely ignores widespread representations. Does he realise that two of the arguments put forward by British Airways for the withdrawal of check-in facilities were that there were far more people using their cars to go to Heathrow and that traffic congestion often held up a bus and delayed aircraft? In view of the changed fuel situation, will the hon. Gentleman have further discussions with a view to changing his mind?

Mr. Heseltine

I hope that the House will not feel that my reply ignored any representations. I was dealing with points made in some of those representations. As the House knows, 80 per cent. of people using Heathrow now go there by car, and, although there may well be some reduction as a result of the fuel situation, it is not likely that the gap will be closed between those who go by car and those who go by bus. The question is whether the 80 per cent. of passengers who have gone by car should in certain circumstances be delayed by the possibility of some of the 20 per cent. who have gone from the terminal being delayed because a particular bus is held up for a certain time. In view of the difficulties with inter-lining and so on, on balance the argument seems to be that the present proposal of British Airways, with the amendments which it has made, will not in fact cause major inconvenience.

Mr. Ridley

In view of the very powerful case just put by my hon. Friend, will he cause an investigation to be held on the reason why BEA decided to commit public expenditure on this white elephant and how it was that the officials in the Ministry of Civil Aviation decided to approve such a wastage of public capital? Surely it is clear that the thing had no commercial value at all.

Mr. Heseltine

This all happened a considerable time ago, and circumstances have no doubt changed dramatically since then, with the ever-increasing proportion of people using their cars to go to Heathrow. However, my hon. Friend's point is most interesting and I shall look into it.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

May I suggest on behalf of the consumer that the Minister is going in completely the wrong direction? Surely he is encouraging people to drive to London Airport, where the parking facilities are already overloaded. Will he consider the difficulties facing elderly people, those going on school trips and those who are travelling for the first time?

Mr. Heseltine

On reflection, the hon. Lady may not want to use the word "encouraging", because the proportions are now so different that it is inconceivable that any policy we adopted would be likely to change the numbers of cars going to Heathrow. A number of changes have been introduced recently to help the sort of people she referred to. It was already intended that there should be sufficient porters to deal with the luggage problem but, in addition, a full-time supervisor will be on duty, to help people who might suffer in the way that the hon. Member fears. For anyone who suffers the ultimate inconvenience of not catching a plane the airlines have said they will see that such people are either booked on a later plane or that accommodation is provided for them in hotels at Heathrow.

Mr. Warren

On British Airways' own admission, only 0.4 per cent. of its flights were delayed last year because of passengers being held up between the check-in point at West London and the airport. This year 1 million people have already used the terminal. As it will save only £500,000 to cut out the facility, cannot passengers be surcharged 40p to cover the facility, so that it may continue.

Mr. Heseltine

Surely my hon. Friend will ask why no other capital city in the world has this facility provided. In addition, 40 per cent. of the 1.3 million people referred to by my hon. Friend as using the service, finding that the facility has been withdrawn since October, have suffered no inconvenience. Admittedly, on the airline's figures only 0.4 per cent. of the flights are delayed, but where that delay takes place—perhaps because of a breakdown and, therefore, congestion on the M4—the other passengers already on the aircraft suffer the great inconvenience of having to wait, and we must remember the inter-lining communications which follow.

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