HC Deb 05 February 1976 vol 904 cc1427-36
The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Shore)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Concorde operations to the United States. As the House will be aware, the United States Secretary of Transportation, Mr. Coleman, announced yesterday his decision on the application by British Airways and Air France for up to two flights each per day to John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, and one each per day to Dulles International Airport, Washington. He allowed their application in full, for a trial period not to exceed 16 months. This will start from the date of the first flight. He has specified a number of conditions for these services, but none of these appears to present any substantial difficulty.

Mr. Coleman has reached this decision following the most exhaustive scrutiny of the arguments for and against allowing Concorde into the United States. He himself chaired a public hearing on 5th January, in which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Industry and a senior representative of the French Government took part. The decision, which runs to some 60 pages of closely argued text, is an impressive and balanced assessment of the environmental aspects of Concorde's operations. I have placed a copy of the decision in the Library.

I am sure the House will welcome this decision to permit Concorde to fly direct to New York and Washington from London and Paris. The way is now open for regular supersonic services across the North Atlantic. I believe services during this period will demonstrate that they will have a minimal effect on the environment.

British Airways have made formal application to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey today and have reminded them of the great importance of speedy decision. They are also arrang- ing immediate discussions on the practical details of the operations with the Federal Aviation Administration.

British Airways aim to begin service in May—provided, of course, that there are no new obstacles. Officials will be discussing early next week with the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration the monitoring programme on noise and ozone, which Mr. Coleman has said should be carried out. We are already working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on a programme to measure chemical constituents of the stratosphere, using Concorde for this purpose.

Concorde entered commercial service to Bahrain and Rio de Janeiro on 21st January. We now look forward to Concorde carrying people across the North Atlantic in just over three hours—half the time of present subsonic services.

Mr. Higgins

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the decision of the Secretary of Transportation will be widely welcomed on both sides of the House and by people outside, just as the technical achievement of those responsible for Concorde has caught the imagination of the public?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Mr. Coleman's statement that the rules of fair play demand that Concorde be given a chance to disprove its critics is important, and that it is to be hoped that the New York authorities will now take an equally balanced view on this subject?

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify whether any necessary court action in the United States will be the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government or of British Airways?

Does the right hon. Gentleman expect that the decision will help negotiations on other routes?

Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a supersonic scheduled service, in the bicentennial year will strengthen the traditional commercial links between the United States and this country, and, indeed, assist our trade in other products?

Mr. Shore

Concerning the hon. Gentleman's last point, it is indeed a happy coincidence that the first transatlantic supersonic services should come into effect in this bicentennial year of the formation and independence of the United States of America. It shows that we are perhaps closer together than ever before—at least in one sense, and a very welcome one.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for giving voice to the broad welcome—which I know is shared very generally in the House—at Secretary Coleman's decision. I entirely agree that the rules of fair play have obviously been honoured in that decision. Those who have had the chance of going through the judgment will, I am sure, concur with that.

I very much hope that all other authorities in the United States which will be concerned with subsequent decisions affecting the operation of Concorde will bring to bear on their decisions the same scrupulous objectivity and judgment that Secretary Coleman himself has shown.

It is not for me to anticipate any court actions, but I think that British Airways would be the main party to any actions if they were brought against the airlines themselves. On the other hand, it is possible that actions might be brought against the decision of Secretary Coleman, in which case it would be presumably for the Federal Transportation Department to justify its own decision.

I am quite certain that the determination of Secretary Coleman will be helpful in assisting us in negotiations with other countries in order to obtain landing rights.

Mr. Penhaligon

The House welcomes the decision that Concorde may land, after so much money has been spent on achieving flight. Will the Minister comment on the United States' restrictions on supersonic flight? Will he confirm that £8,000 was paid to residents in Cornwall during the supersonic test flights which took place? Consequently, will he ban commercial supersonic flight over the land mass of the British Isles? Will he also confirm that the South-West is likely to be in Concorde's flight path to the United States of America?

Mr. Shore

I cannot answer the second question yet. Obviously, the London to New York and London to Washington routes do not involve any supersonic over? flying of the United Kingdom. If routes are developed which affect the United Kingdom—in that overflight of a part of the United Kingdom is an essential part of such flight—clearly we shall have to examine the situation more closely. I would not declare a closed mind—it would be quite wrong of me to do soon that possibility.

As to the United States, the judgment concerns the right to land in two airports in the United States. It does not include supersonic flight over the continent of the United States.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the news he has just formally announced to the House will be widely welcomed by the great mass of the British people, who, unlike the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), are much more concerned than he is with the health of the British aviation industry and also of British industry in general?

I also express the hope that the excellent Mr. Coleman will be emulated very shortly by the new governmental authorities in Australia.

Mr. Shore

I thank my hon. Friend for giving his own endorsement of and welcome to the decision. I believe that it is not only extremely important for the future development of Britain's air services but also very helpful for the whole future of the British aviation industry.

I join my hon. Friend in his wish and hope that the Australian authorities—who are also considering the environmental impact and effects of Concorde—will have the opportunity to look at this very careful American judgment before coming to their own conclusions.

Mr. Tebbit

May I put three questions to the right hon. Gentleman" First, will he consider posting to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) one of the published routes of the flight paths to the United States proposed for Concorde, so that the hon. Gentleman will be able to find out whether it goes over his constituency? Everybody else knows the answer.

Secondly, may I press the right hon. Gentleman again on the issue of who would pay for any legal actions which might arise in the United States as a consequence of Mr. Secretary Coleman's decisions? It would seem improper to many of us if the burden of seeing Concorde operate into North America were to fall upon British Airways in terms of legal costs.

Thirdly, I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, in the remarks he made about not having a totally closed mind on the subject of supersonic overflying routes in the United Kingdom, he has broken some new ground. Will he confirm that that was indeed what he meant to do and that he is saying that he would be prepared to look on its merits at any application to overtly the United Kingdom supersonically?

Mr. Shore

I was not expecting this to come as an immediate issue, but I certainly confirm that it would be the duty of any Government to look carefully at any proposal put forward. I shall say neither more nor less on that subject at the present time.

As for the hon. Gentleman's request that I should send the published routes of Concorde to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), I am willing to see that the hon. Member receives that information. In view of the comments he made, the hon. Member would be very well advised to read the report, which contains an enormous amount of information, particularly dealing with many of the anxieties which, no doubt, he has expressed on behalf of his constituents as to the actual effects of Concorde flying over land and coming in over built-up areas.

Concerning legal expenses and who should pay for them, I shall not give a commitment at the moment but I assure the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) that I shall look sympathetically at this problem.

Mr. Palmer

Is my right hon. Friend aware not only of the pride that the achievement of Concorde's flight to the United States will give to the country generally but of the great satisfaction it will give to the Concorde workers in Bristol—which, I may say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), is also in the South-West?

Will my right hon. Friend also say whether he thinks that this gives any prospect for the future of extra Concordes now being manufactured?

Mr. Shore

The fact that we have, through Secretary Coleman's judgment, opened the gates to the North American continent is the most important single step that has yet been taken in establishing the success of Concorde. Therefore, the possibilities of the general success of the Concorde programme are increased. I shall not be taken further on that road at the moment because I do not believe in looking too far ahead, but obviously we shall all feel great satisfaction at this further step forward. We certainly share the pride that my hon. Friend has expressed—a pride shared also by all those who have been engaged in building this remarkable aeroplane.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members be as brief as they can? I hope to call them all, but there is a Ten-Minute Bill to come before the short Welsh debate and then there is a short Scottish debate, so the House should be fair.

Mr. Warren

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will give the widest possible publicity to the findings of the technical studies that he has mentioned so as to alleviate public concern as rapidly as possible about the environmental impact of Concorde?

Mr. Shore

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion, which is a very good one. In view of the many exaggerated and unnecessary anxieties expressed and built up about Concorde, we have a public duty to make that information available.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever happens in the case of New York, there will be no further legal obstacles to prevent Concorde from flying into Washington? Can he explain the significance of the odd period of 16 months for the experiment? Third, can he convey to British Airways the fact that, while many of us are glad that they will be able to fly Concorde into the United States, we are a little puzzled that after so many years of anticipation it will still take three months to initiate services?

Mr. Shore

First of all, I can give no guarantees about legal obstacles. There is great ingenuity in the resort to legal remedies and I have no doubt that people are studying the possibility in the United States at present. However, I hope that they will be overcome.

The reason for the period of 16 months is made clear in Secretary Coleman's judgment—one year for a real period of operation in all seasons of the year, followed by a period of appraisal in the light of the information gathered during that 12 months' operation. As for the question of the three months' delay in initiating services, obviously a number of important matters have to be arranged with the FAA and the airport authorities. In addition, we are having a build-up of Concorde deliveries. We shall receive the fourth Concorde in July or August of this year.

Mr. John Davies

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge—I am sure he will—that this is a major milestone on a triumphant industrial co-operative project beween France and ourselves? In that light, would he kindly reassure the House that any action which is being taken to further the interests of Concorde in the United States or elsewhere is taken in the fullest agreement with, and with the fullest help of, the French Government?

Mr. Shore

I think that it is a milestone in the onward journey of Concorde, which has been a long one and by no means an easy one. I certainly subscribe to that view and also to the view expressed in the Financial Times editorial about a major triumph not only for BAC but for British Airways and Air France as well. We shall, of course, keep in close touch with the French as our partners in this endeavour.

Mr. Pattie

Taking the onward journey of Concorde a stage further, would the right hon. Gentleman care to tell us what the situation is at the moment in the achievement of overflying rights for Concorde's routes to Johannesburg and Melbourne?

Mr. Shore

Johannesburg is not one of the priority routes. The next step for Concorde is from Bahrain to Singapore, and Singapore to Australia. We are having discussions with all those concerned in the overflying and landing rights on that route.

Mr. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend accept that for some people this decision merely puts off the evil day when we shall have to decide what to do when the 16 Concordes have finished production? Will he not accept that this is a huge financial disaster and not a technological triumph at all and that our ability and expertise, great though they are in this matter, should be put into other affairs so that we can develop things which people will really use? Since this decision to permit Concorde to enter America is only a temporary one, has he considered what will happen after the 16 months if the aircraft is not allowed to enter America again?

Mr. Shore

There can always be arguments about the best way of using £1,000 million worth of resources or whatever it may be. But having made the decision and produced this splendid aircraft, as it undoubtedly is, I can see no point in my hon. Friend's observation at this stage. I genuinely believe now that the prospect has been greatly enhanced of the success of Concorde in commercial service. I believe that Mr. Secretary Coleman's judgment in this respect has been a milestone.

Mr. Jessel

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the American decision will not be universally welcome among communities living around Heathrow, which already suffer acutely from aircraft noise? Will the Government take the interests of those people rather more seriously in future than they have done in the past—for example, with their abandonment of the Maplin plan? Will he give a categoric assurance that in no circumstances will Concorde be allowed to take off or land at night—a condition being imposed by the Americans at their end, bearing in mind that their night hours are slightly different? Will the Government do what they can to get the aircraft industry to produce a quieter type of Concorde?

Mr. Shore

Let me first give the categoric assurance for which the hon. Gentleman asks. There will be no night landings or take-offs by Concorde from Heathrow. We have already made that clear and I wish to re-emphasise the point today. Of course, I understand that those living close to airports will always react against what they fear to be an increase in aircraft noise, but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, in the judgment of all those who have studied this matter carefully, the actual impact of Concorde, as distinct from the general impact of aircraft noise at these airports, is indeed minimal.

Mr. Adley

While one congratulates the Secretary of State on his robust activities recently and Mr. Coleman on his refusal to be brow-beaten by the inspired fantasies of the United States anti-Concorde industry, will the right hon. Gentleman apply his mind to the problem which will be faced shortly if there are court cases as to whether British Airways and Air France can fly into the United States while those cases are pending, if they are brought, or whether the flights will be in danger of being held up indefinitely while the anti-Concorde industry deliberately prolongs that activity? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman remind my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) that on the inaugural flight of Concorde his Department received two complaints about the noise?

Mr. Shore

I am sure that the House will be interested in that last point, which I confirm. As for the question of court actions which might be taken in the United States, we are still dealing with a hypothetical circumstance but we hope that any court would deal with the matter expeditiously. It does not necessarily follow that all operations would be sus- pended pending a decision by any such court.

Sir T. Kitson

How many flights will be flown by British Airways and how many by Air France? Will they be split fifty-fifty?

Mr. Shore

The rights which have been accorded are entirely equal as between Air France and British Airways—two Concordes each daily into JFK and one each into Dulles, Washington. How the airlines use those flights is something which they will obviously discuss; it has not yet been finally determined.

Sir Raymond Gower

Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson), may I ask the right hon. Gentleman what arrangement or agreement has been entered into between British Airways and Air France about future applications for routes in North America and South America or, indeed, in other parts of the world? Has an arrangement been made whereby each organisation will apply in one part of America—one in South America, say, and the other in North America—or is this all unplanned?

Mr. Shore

There have been considerable discussions on this matter over a long period. The submission to the United States Administration was a joint submission by British Airways and Air France to Secretary Coleman. Certain routes have attracted the French Government and Air France, and others have proved more attractive to British Airways and to us. But we are in touch with each other on these matters.