HC Deb 21 February 1994 vol 238 cc1-3
1. Mr. Clappison

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress he has made towards liberalisation of transatlantic air routes.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor)

The United Kingdom tabled proposals in December, which would achieve substantial further liberalisation on transatlantic routes, further than anything that we have previously offered. It takes a phased approach offering immediate complete liberalisation of all United Kingdom-United States services, except those involving Heathrow and Gatwick, and offers real commercial opportunities at those two airports. I am disappointed that the United States Government have not been able to respond in a similar manner.

Mr. Clappison

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the apparent stalling by the United States Government gives the unfortunate impression that they are more interested in protecting their industries than in demonstrating a genuine commitment to airline liberalisation? Does he agree that it also appears that the United States is afraid of competition from efficient British Airways and is unaware of the great benefits of liberalisation to the travelling public on both sides of the Atlantic?

Mr. MacGregor

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that further liberalisation would bring great benefits—the benefits of further competition—for passengers on both sides of the Atlantic. I also agree that United Kingdom airlines are very competitive. I can only speculate as to why the talks have been postponed and it has not yet been possible to take them up again, and I do not know whether my hon. Friend is right. I am disappointed that the talks were postponed and I hope that the United States Government will recognise the real values and virtues of our proposals, which are serious, and agree to meet us around the negotiating table again soon to discuss them in greater detail.

Dr. Godman

Where does Glasgow airport stand in that scheme of things? It is a major employer in the area and there is burgeoning demand for transatlantic flights to and from Glasgow. I hope that the Secretary of State is arguing the case for that airport as much as for other airports south of the border.

Mr. MacGregor

I am aware of the improvements at Glasgow airport and of the considerable expansion there —not least since the British Airports Authority was privatised, which has greatly increased investment.

Dr. Godman

Now answer the question.

Mr. MacGregor

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there have been big improvements since privatisation.

On transatlantic routes and the negotiations—sadly, there are no talks at the moment—the answer is that in December we proposed complete liberalisation of flights from Glasgow airport.

Mr. Channon

Am I to understand that the American Government are refusing to negotiate at the moment? Is that not extremely unsatisfactory and very much against the interests of air travellers? What steps does my right hon. Friend propose to take to break that deadlock?

Mr. MacGregor

It is very disappointing. There would be great benefits if we could reach a successful conclusion to the negotiations. We are in discussions with the United States Government in the hope that we can resume the talks as soon as possible. I have said that I would be prepared to go to Washington if that were likely to benefit the progress of the talks in any way.

Mr. Olner

I hope that the Secretary of State will put great pressure on his American colleagues, because his news will be greeted with great disappointment, especially at Birmingham airport. Our regional airports need that way into transatlantic routes. I hope that he will do all in his power to ensure that the Americans come to the negotiating table and that regional airports are not used as a bargaining chip for the London airports. I would not want him to miss that point.

Mr. MacGregor

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that we can to develop services at regional airports, including Birmingham. Representatives of those airports are on the United Kingdom negotiating team because they know the position and they can be sure that their voice is fully heard. I can, therefore, give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks.

As I said, I am disappointed, too. I hope that we can resume negotiations. It would weaken our negotiating position simply to give away valuable rights to United States airlines with nothing in return; therefore, we must consider the negotiating package as a whole and not give away parts of it in advance.