HC Deb 10 February 1992 vol 203 cc640-2
3. Mr. Steen

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will introduce measures to require the Civil Aviation Authority to pay compensation for airline passengers whose planes are delayed for over 10 minutes after the scheduled arrival time as a result of delays caused by air traffic control.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I have no plans to do so.

Mr. Steen

What about the airlines? Should not they get compensation if planes are delayed because of the restrictive practices of air traffic controllers? Is not one way to get a greater quantity and quality of slots to separate the Civil Aviation Authority from National Air Traffic Services and make it an independent public utility, thereby separating the poacher-cum gamekeeper role of the Civil Aviation Authority, much as the National Rivers Authority and the water authorities are separate? Would not that be a better solution for the customer—the airline passenger—and for the airlines themselves?

Mr. Rifkind

On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, obviously when aircraft are late there can be a number of reasons. It may, for example, be the action of air traffic controllers overseas that resulted in the late departure of an aircraft, for which air traffic control authorities in this country could hardly be held responsible.

On the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission last commented on this matter, it suggested that at some stage a review would be appropriate to look at the future combination of the Civil Aviation Authority with National Air Traffic Services. We will at some stage wish to consider that matter, but I should not like to comment on the issues at the moment. That are complex and they would need to be examined very carefully before any view could be properly expressed.

Mr. Prescott

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in 1990, at Heathrow. Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports, more than 26 million passengers arrived more than 15 minutes late? If the Secretary of State were even to consider paying a small compensation of £10, it would be the equivalent of £250 million, doubling the CAA's debt to the Government—that is, its borrowing requirement. Do the Government accept some responsibility in this matter, because they laid down the corporate plan in 1983 that instructed the CAA to reduce the number of air traffic controllers by more than 100 or 8 per cent., which has contributed to those people arriving late at our airports?

Mr. Rifkind

It was not clear from the hon. Gentleman's remarks whether he was pledging a future Labour Government to impose such a financial obligation on the Civil Aviation Authority. I note that he is rather coy about giving his view on that matter. He should be aware that the air traffic control system in the United Kingdom not only has the best record in Europe but has available to it massive investment which will lead to a substantial increase in the available capacity. The requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority with regard to new investment have indeed been fully met by the present Government.

Mr. Soames

While I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the plans for increased spending on air traffic control in this country, is satisfied with the political control of Eurocontrol? Is he able to tell the House when that is liable to come on stream, bearing in mind that that excellent plan will make a great difference to the convenience and safety of the travelling public?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important matter. Of course, at a European level it is desirable to achieve better harmonisation and co-ordination of air traffic control. However, I should warn the House that I do not believe that it is appropriate to try to move towards a single air traffic control organisation. There have been too many examples of poor industrial relations, especially in France, which have led to all air traffic being cancelled. I should not like those matters to be in the control of a small number of people, who could switch off air traffic throughout Europe because of some industrial dispute. Our air traffic controllers have a superb record of service to the country. We want better harmonisation and co-ordination, but not a single uniform organisation.

Rev. Martin Smyth

We appreciate the Secretary of State's responses, but I am a little concerned that he is still thinking of considering that in the future. There are still too many delayed flights, especially from Scotland and Northern Ireland, because—we are told—of air traffic control delays. May I press the Minister to reconsider the issue—or is there a cosy relationship between the airlines and some hotels, to try to get us to stay overnight in London?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point. It was precisely because of the undoubted congestion at Heathrow and, to a lesser extent, at Gatwick that some years ago the Government approved major investment for the CAA. Steps which are currently under way and the new investment which is being provided will in the near future allow for a substantial increase in overall air capacity in the south-east, which will help to relieve that type of congestion, to the benefit of the travelling public.

Mr. Adley

In rejecting the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen), has my right hon. and learned Friend borne in mind the repercussions of the reasons that he gave for his rejection a moment ago—that someone else might be responsible? Bearing in mind that the proposals in the citizens charter for British Rail could also be subject to the same propositions—perhaps a suicide on the line or a hoax telephone call—how confident is my right hon. and learned Friend that the citizens charter will provide cast iron guidelines which will not end up in a lawyers' paradise?

Mr. Rifkind

I have always made it clear that British Rail is entitled, and indeed correct, to point out that late arrivals of trains can be due to acts of vandalism or other acts beyond its control. That is being taken into account in the preparations for the passengers charter by British Rail.