HL Deb 23 June 1931 vol 81 cc298-314

VISCOUNT GAGErose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of their recent decision on airship policy, they are satisfied that our air communications with the East can be maintained and developed by aeroplanes operating on existing routes under the conditions that are at present imposed on their use; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, about a year ago I ventured to ask His Majesty's Government whether any permanent settlement had been reached in regard to the Indian Air Mail routes, because it seemed that in certain aspects the restrictions which had been imposed by foreign Governments on our aeroplanes were to some extent handicapping the development of our commercial aviation. Nevertheless, both technically and financially it seemed possible to make large extensions of our air routes, such as the extensions to Australia and to Cape Town, but there were, at any rate at that time, certain vital points on the routes where our security of tenure was not very good, and I asked whether there was any prospect of our reaching lone-term agreements with the countries concerned, so as to avoid a risk of breakdown in the services, and so that greater efficiency and economy in administration could be effected.

The Secretary of State at that time, the late Lord Thomson, made a very sympathetic and full reply. He made, in fact, a very interesting speech, but I do not know that he was altogether reassuring on this particular subject. He did say, indeed, that we were co-operating satisfactorily with the majority of the countries involved. There were certain places where the future did not seem so clear, particularly in regard to Persia, where our existing agreement was to come to an end in the spring of 1932. Lord Thomson pointed out that the Air Convention did not altogether solve our difficulties, because the large majority of those countries that had signed the Air Convention retained the right to interpret Article 15 (I think it was) in a sense which gave them considerable freedom to impose a great variety of restrictions.

Lord Thomson did, on the other hand, devote some time to giving us information about airships, and it seemed to me—although I may be wrong—that he was confident that any difficulties we might have in obtaining wayleaves for aeroplanes would eventually be overcome by the use of the airship, which would obviate any necessity to land in these difficult places. This is, perhaps, not the moment to pay a belated tribute to Lord Thomson's work, but I might perhaps state that, great as is the prejudice that exists now against airships after that terrible disaster, a point in their favour which, I think, still carries weight, is the belief which such trusted administrators as Lord Thomson and Sir Sefton Brancker had in them; and I think, in deference to them, we must still believe that the airship eventually will come into its own. But the R101 Report and the recently announced policy of His Majesty's Government in regard to airships, which I think has very properly received almost unanimous approval, has for present purposes practically removed the airship from the scope of commercial aviation. Virtually, I think, we are left with aeroplanes alone, and at any rate I am assuming that the somewhat vague term "air communications" refers only to aeroplanes.

Not long ago the Chairman of Imperial Airways referred in a public speech to the necessity for the continuance of the subsidy, as he explained that technical development was not sufficiently advanced to enable aeroplanes to pay without a subsidy. He did hold out considerable hopes that some time in the future, with the simplification of design, the aeroplane would eventually become a paying proposition in itself for commercial purposes; but he concluded by saying that, together with simplicity of design, what was required was simplicity in regard to "the staggering number of laws, rules and regulations, which present one of the most serious obstacles to the progress of Air transport." These are the considered words of the Chairman of Imperial Airways, and I think it is only right that we should from time to time ask what progress is being made in regard to that part of the development of aviation which is the particular responsibility of Parliament. Sir Eric Geddes did not exactly specify what the restrictions were. His exact words were these: Here we must cross a frontier after dark, there we must deviate one hundred miles because we must not operate unless we call at a certain town, or we must not operate more than once weekly; and so the irritating restrictions and the insecurity of tenure which many of them impart hinder developments. I understand—I do not know whether correctly—that in Italy, in Greece, in Iraq, in Egypt, and in Persia restrictions and limitations of various kinds exist, some more important than others. These restrictions apparently have not prevented us carrying on, for I believe that, except in regard to the snow-bound highlands of South-Eastern Europe, we have maintained our service throughout the year. But I think I am right in saying that it has only been maintained by continuous negotiation, and even that arrangements in certain places, which are not altogether satisfactory now. are liable to come to an end.

I should like to ask the Minister about the position in Persia. Does he see any chance of maintaining the present route after 1932, or is he satisfied that by some other route we can maintain our communications with India? Of course, I do not wish to press the Minister in regard to a matter on which he is doubtless negotiating now, but I feel that we ought to have some assurance that the service will not be discontinued, whatever may be the result of our negotiations with the Persian Government. May I also ask about the position in India, as I have heard rumours which I think it difficult to believe, that the Government of India are giving facilities to foreign air services which they are not allowing to our own? I think it is a fact that at present the only services which are advertised to cross India are Dutch and French. I feel confident that the Minister can give us an assurance that no question of differentiation really arises but that there is some question of subsidy in dispute. I hope that the Minister can say something about the plans of the Government of India in regard to this vital gap in our communications with Australia, because I do not think that the information given last year was of a very comprehensive kind and progress seems to be rather slow.

Turning to a question of a more general character, it seems to me that the principal concern of the Ministry and of Imperial Airways is to concentrate on the main line to Australia—I am dealing entirely with the East at present—and to form what Lord Thomson described last year as the grand trunk line. They seemed determined that this line should be established and, further, that it should be an All-British or at least All-Empire line. As far as a layman is entitled to have any opinion on these matters of policy, it seems to me a very good policy. Indeed, the questions I have asked so far are merely designed to elicit from the Ministry how far progress is being maintained in regard to this policy.

But a further point, I think, arises. If we examine the air map of Europe today we find it covered with a network of routes which are all heavily subsidised and are all merely auxiliary to the very efficient, or comparatively very efficient, transport services of rail and road. When we come to such countries as Persia, Iraq, and even India, we find I think, comparatively speaking, few roads or railways, although of course India is in a very different position from Persia and Iraq; but compared with Europe there are few roads and railways, and there are also long periods of hot weather when travelling is difficult for Europeans. I do not know what the Minister's opinion may be as to the part which he thinks aeroplanes may play in the recuperation of trade in those countries and incidentally, perhaps, in helping our own. I am perfectly ignorant of these matters, but is it a very far fetched idea to imagine that, for such things as the rapid inspection of "propositions" by industrialists, for enabling representatives of merchants to come into contact with possible purchasers, for the delivery of essential machinery and spare parts, and for banking and money exchange, the aeroplane may have great and really unique advantages?

I notice that in the Southern Russian States and in Persia the Soviet and the German services are making steady progress. Indeed, I am informed by somebody who has made an extended aeroplane: tour over the whole of the Middle East, that the Soviet and German aerodromes and facilities compare very favourably with those of Imperial Airways. These services, of course, do not interfere with our own at present, but I imagine that as development proceeds points of contact will be established and questions of policy will, doubtless, arise. At any rate, I imagine it is the intention of the Ministry that this great trunk line having been once established, it shall be fed by subsidiary lines of some kind. I would like to know whether any attempt is being made now to co-operate with foreign subsidiary lines which already exist, such, for instance, as the French service from Damascus to Bagdad, and the German service from Teheran to Bushire, or with railways at any point on this route; or whether we ourselves or the Government of India are contemplating the. establishment of subsidiary routes, so that centres of trade (an obvious example is Bombay) may be brought into touch with this main line.

Last year I ventured to make a very minor suggestion with regard to the information in respect of the schedules of foreign going services, and the Secretary of State was good enough to say that he welcomed the suggestion. I hope some progress is being made in that direction. It is a very small matter and it seems to me to interfere very little with the main policy of Imperial Airways. Of course, I am not attempting or presuming to carp at or criticise anything the Ministry have done or have not done. In a new subject like commercial aviation I feel that there must obviously be great divergencies of outlook between the experienced administrators who are building up the line and the ordinary public. I think, however, in regard to the granting of public money and the utilisation of the facilities which the Ministry are providing, Chat the public are more likely to co-operate intelligently if they are kept informed not only of the ordinary progress which is being made but in some measure of the aims and projects which the Ministry have in mind.

I make no claim, of course, to any special knowledge. My experience is merely that of a passenger, but I bear in mind words uttered last year by a great expert, Lord Trenchard, who, in discussing the question whether Imperial Airways would pay as a commercial concern, asked: Would it not be more far-seeing to look at civil aviation from the point of view of how much it is going to benefit the Empire as a whole, owing to its help in the direction of quicker communications? I think nobody will fail to admit that quicker communication between different parts of the Empire is becoming more and more a vital matter every year, and I would like to ask: What is civil aviation worth to the Empire? What is it worth to the political life of the Empire? What is it worth to the industrial life of the Empire? and so on. These are questions which it is very difficult for the layman to answer without expert assistance. We are all, even very far-seeing people, inclined to make mistakes. I remember reading that when the great Duke of Wellington saw one of the earlier steam locomotives he expressed the opinion that he saw no reason to suppose that these engines would ever force themselves into general use. Nobody to-day could say about aeroplanes that they were not in general use. But I sometimes wonder whether in time to come we shall not spend a larger proportion of State money on developing and advertising commercial aviation and, perhaps, a slightly smaller proportion on amateur aviation. I beg to move.


My Lords, before the Secretary of State replies I should like to add a few remarks on this subject. It seems to me from reading the Motion that the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, has on the Paper and other papers, that there is an idea among some people that civil aviation could be internationalised, to be quite plain. I hope that will never come about. I do not think it is possible for anybody to imagine the results if a foreign Power could come and establish a line between Edinburgh and London. The question of contractual agreement between Powers to enable one of them to send its machines to the territory of another and to land and pass on or over it is a business matter of arrangement between the Powers. In that way it could be worked if they were not always striving after what I consider the impossible. It is purely an arrangement. If one Power puts difficulties in the way of another Power flying through its country, equally will the country which has difficulties put before it not agree to any proposal for the aeroplanes of that other country to go through its country. On that point, if I may say so, we are favourably situated from the material point of view. This Empire has more to offer to every other country than any country has to offer to this country. Therefore I cannot see from the practical point of view why we should ever strive after internationalised aviation.

There is one other point that the noble Viscount mentioned—the subsidy. I was not quite clear whether he was keen on allowing competition between various British firms, but I would like to say that if you look back to the days when freedom was allowed at the start of civil aviation in the British Empire and compare the state it is in to-day with what it was then, you realise that the small amount of money that Governments offer to civil aviation, distributed amongst several different countries, does not help forward civil aviation. The noble Viscount was kind enough to quote a few remarks I made a year ago on this subject, in which I said the Government should make up its mind how much civil aviation is worth to this country. I will not repeat what the noble Viscount has just read, but I would ask the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Air, to say what civil aviation is worth to the Empire as a whole. I know it is a hard point to answer, but is it worth £250,000 or £500,000, not on the supposition that it is a payment towards civil aviation to be paid in any case, but a payment for work really done for the Empire?

There are two other points to which I would like to refer. One is India. When we talk about restrictions of foreign countries and difficulties of flying through and over foreign countries, it is a question of making an arrangement with others for some quid pro quo. Cannot the same be done amongst the different Commonwealths of the British Empire, if there is a difficulty in flying through India at the present moment? There is also a point I am very exercised about to which the noble Viscount did not refer, and that is the encourage- ment of the design of the aeroplane for civil work. How does it compare with the foreign machine, and is he satisfied that it is the best? Finally, as long as a policy of civil aviation is laid down—that is, if the Government will say it is worth so much to this Empire—and it is maintained during the next ten or fifteen years without continually seeing whether it is paying or whether the subsidy can get less—if we had some definite continuity of policy, I believe civil aviation would develop fast.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Viscount on his very reasoned speech. He covered a number of points and I shall endeavour in the course of my observations to meet them. At the same time i should like to compliment him upon the very fair and studied statement he made. With regard to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trenchard, I am afraid many of them are not matters capable of an exact answer. He raised the question, for example, how does the subsidy assist the value of air services between different parts of the Empire. I think air communication, so far as subsidy is required, is one of those things in regard to which we have to build on the future, and build in faith and confidence that commerce and peaceful relations between the different parts of the Empire and also different parts of the world may be consummated. That, it seems to me, is the true value which one should seek to assess in dealing with a matter such as intercommunication of air services. The noble Lord also referred to the question of the British aeroplane. I think I may give an assurance to your Lordships that we pride ourselves upon the safety of the British aeroplane, its workmanship, and its capability of undertaking and overcoming the great stresses put upon it in the carriage of traffic.

The noble Lord, Lord Trenchard, also referred to a very difficult subject, the matter of mutual agreement between nations. As your Lordships will remember, that question rests largely upon a Convention which was arrived at some ten years ago or more, and which has been signed by something like twenty-seven different States, whereby an attempt was made to secure certain terms by which various nations may be able to arrive at some common understanding and common working agreement with regard to air services. That Convention resolved that each nation was entitled to insist upon its own conditions as to how entry into its territory should be observed. A view was expressed that whilst each nation might be entitled to reserve to itself a refusal to grant accommodation, that refusal should not be unreasonably withheld; but on the matter going before this Convention and on a division being taken, the other view prevailed. Accordingly we are in this position, that any particular country which may wish to pass over other countries must have an individual agreement with the several countries.

For example, if we take the existing air route to the East from England, it has to pass through nine different countries—France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq and Persia. It is, therefore, necessary that an agreement should be reached with each of those countries in order to be able to effect the service. This route between England and the East is operated at the present time by an English company called the Imperial Airways. It may be useful in answering the questions put by the noble Viscount if I indicate very shortly the terms upon which we are enabled to pass through the territories of those several countries. At the present moment the route through France is based on mutual understanding without any agreement. English services are permitted to operate across French territory, and in the same way the French services are permitted to operate to London. As recently as August 7, 1929, the late French Air Minister and Lord Thomson held a conference on questions affecting the development of French and British commercial air transport. As a result of that conference it was agreed that such questions should be considered by both parties in a spirit of wide mutual co-operation. So far as France is concerned, therefore, no anxiety with regard to the future need arise.

The position with regard to Switzerland is that regular British air services have been carried on under provisional agreements since 1919, and no serious difficulty has at any time arisen. The question is now under consideration whether a more formal agreement for a term of years between Great Britain and Switzerland covering the operation of specific air services is desirable, and there the matter so far as Switzerland is concerned rests.

When the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, reviewed the field of civil aviation before your Lordships a year ago there was a gap in the direct route to the Far East when we reached Italy. In consequence of this gap, it was necessary to take a route through Central Europe. This meant, especially in the winter months, a considerable section of the route being frequently performed by rail, which in turn meant some irregularity in the services. Happily, in the early part of the spring of this year we were able to arrive at a satisfactory agreement with Italy whereby Imperial Airways will be able to operate their services to Egypt and beyond across Italian territory. The Convention was signed last month 'and is awaiting ratification. The permanent route—at present there is a, temporary route through Genoa and further south—under the Convention will be by Milan, Rimini and Brindisi to be operated by land 'planes and beyond Brindisi by seaplanes. The Convention is for a period of ten years. Our air communication will thus have a security of operation over Italian territory until 1941. I wish to take this opportunity of thanking the Italian Minister for Air, General Balbo, and his colleagues for the helpful spirit they displayed in these negotiations.

We have also been successful in arriving at an agreement of a permanent nature with Greece which will enable us to continue the route from Italy to Greece. The agreement or the Convention was reached last April. Under this Convention Imperial Airways can operate routes from Italy to Athens and beyond, from Malta to Athens and beyond, and from Yugo-Slavia and Salonika to Athens and beyond. The Convention has still to be ratified, but pending ratification the service is being operated by agreement between the two Governments. The Convention remains in force for a period of seven years and, unless denounced by notice given two years prior to the termination of that period, it continues in force for a further period of three years and can then be renewed for successive periods of five years. Therefore on the ratification of the Convention, the air route through Greek territory will be secure until 1938, and, unless denounced in 1936, until 1941, and so on for successive periods of five years.

We now come to Egypt, where our communications at one time had been the subject of interruption. An agreement is being drawn up between the Egyptian Government and Imperial Airways on terms which I understand are mutually satisfactory. The service from Western Europe divides in Egypt, one part going south in the direction of the Cape and the other proceeding towards the East. The route through Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq calls for no comment. Satisfactory agreements have been in operation now for some time. There has also been a beneficial working agreement through Persia,, and from Persia we arrive at Karachi in India where our jurisdiction, if I may use the expression, over a direct route ends.

As a result of the Convention arrived at with Italy and also that with Greece and the agreement now being concluded with Egypt, it can, I think, be claimed, that the position generally is a great deal more stable than it was this time last year when the question was debated in your Lordships' House on the noble Viscount's Motion. By substituting the route through Italy for that through Central Europe greater regularity of service will be obtained than formerly, and it is to be hoped that this will result in a material increase in traffic, both passenger and mail.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, stated, the agreement with Persia comes to an end in March, 1932, and in the meantime negotiations with Persia are on foot for the continuance of a route over the territory of that country. The present route follows the north coast of the Persian Gulf from Basra to Jask and beyond. The Government of His Majesty the Shah have always indicated a preference for a route through Central Persia, and a survey of that route is now being made or is about to be made on behalf of Imperial Airways. For the moment, therefore, all parties are awaiting the result of this survey. Meanwhile, we are pushing on with the examination of an alternative route along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, that is, along the Arabian coast. This is being actively explored. Both land and marine aircraft of the Royal Air Force have been making-flights of increasing frequency from Basra to Muscat, thus acting as pioneers for ultimate civil development.

I should like, if I may, to turn aside for a moment and refer to the useful pacific role, which the Royal Air Force performs in opening up new lines of air communications. Thus the Cairo-Bagdad service paved the way to the existing civil route to India, and the annual flight of the Air Force in Egypt from Cairo to the Cape opened up the route for the imperial Airways African service. The flights from England to Australia and from India to Singapore will open up in the near future the trade routes to the Far East and Australia, and the annual flight from Cairo to West Africa, with the development of the great potentialities of our West African Colonies and the Sudan, may open up a successful trade route there. The air service to India from. London is at present a weekly one terminating at Karachi. From Karachi to Delhi aircraft are chartered from and operated by Imperial Airways on behalf of the Indian Government as an Indian State Air Service. The air route has now been organised from Delhi to Calcutta and from Calcutta to Rangoon.

In answer to the point raised by the noble Viscount as to the position with regard to India, the policy of the Government of India in respect to civil aviation undertakings was announced in the Legislative Assembly in 1927 in the following terms: The Government"— that is the Government of India— accepted the principle of subsidising internal air services in India, provided that such air services would be entrusted to concerns, which would be controlled by Indian directors and financed by rupee capital, which would be required to afford training and opportunities of employment for Indians in branches of their work. As, however, it was found impossible to entrust the working of such services to a commercial company fulfilling these conditions, the Government of India decided that the only alternative would be for them to utilise the money (which they had intended to be spent on a subsidy to an Indian company) for the purpose of operating a State Air Service under their own control.'' It thus appears from that statement of policy that at the present time the service in India is a State service. In con- sequence of this policy, I understand, Imperial Airways were not able to operate the working of an air service across India, since they could not fulfil the conditions as to Indian control which the Government of India have laid down, and were not, without the grant of a subsidy, in a position to carry on a commercial service.

The foreign services which at present cross India are those operated by Dutch and French companies. Neither of these companies receives any financial assistance by way of subsidy or guarantee from the Government of India, both being, I am informed, subsidised by their own Governments. All that the Government of India have done is to allow those services, carrying transit mails to Batavia and Saigon respectively, to traverse India by the recognised international route in accordance with a reasonably liberal policy. The foreign companies are not allowed to carry mails from one point in India to another, nor to pick up mails in India for any destination on other parts of the route. Mails carried by the foreign services for India are dropped at the Customs aerodromes at which they first land in India. These companies pay the normal rates for housing and landing facilities within India, while wireless and meteorological services are provided free.

In consequence of the policy announced by the Government of India, Imperial Airways, as I have said, were not able to operate an air service across India. The Government of India have agreed, however, by arranging their timetables, to co-operate with the existing service to Karachi and with any scheme for the extension of this air route to Burma, the Straits Settlements and Australia, when that route is initiated. The Dutch company are operating a regular fortnightly service from Holland through to Batavia, and the French company a fortnightly service from France to Rangoon and from there to Saigon. At present, as I have already explained, the British and Indian Air Service to the East does not extend beyond Delhi. I hope that this statement may be able to satisfy the noble Viscount as to the position of the mail service across India.

Imperial Airways have carried out two experimental return flights with air mail between Calcutta and Port Darwin in North Australia, and the Dutch have carried out one experimental return flight between Batavia and Port Darwin. The problem of instituting the operation of a regular air mail service to Singapore and to Australia has been under active consideration during the past year. We ourselves in England, Burma, the Straits Settlements and the Commonwealth of Australia are all anxious for it. It appears, however, to be impracticable to undertake the service without a substantial subsidy or guarantee, or financial assistance in some other way. The need for a service of this kind in the interests of trade and commerce is not in dispute. No one doubts the practicability of the operation of such a service. Here we need Australian co-operation, and I have to express regret that the Commonwealth's economic difficulties may prove a temporary handicap to the development of this service. We are actively canvassing proposals for some kind of air link within the limits of what is financially practicable in present conditions.

It cannot be said that the last word has been uttered in reference to our air communications with the East. We have done much. It is necessary for us, however, to increase our vigilance and seek the development and improvement of our air communications in every way. Civil aviation is a business, and in business there is no standing still. If we do not go forward we go backward relatively to other nations. I share the view of the noble Viscount that it is in the undeveloped countries, where communications are rudimentary and there are vast distances to be traversed, that the greatest opportunity lies for the more rapid development of civil aviation. We are at the present time hampered by our inability to render that financial assistance which is necessary to enable a forward policy of development. We expend a modest sum in aid of civil aviation compared with the sums spent by other nations. For example, in 1928–29 we expended £400,000: France spent £1,750,000; Germany £2,500,000; and the United States of America £3,100,000.

The noble Viscount raises an important question as to whether the better line of future development is in international co-operation or in All-British lines. I am not sure that it is possible to say that the better line of future development would be the one or the other. I incline to the view that, at least at the present time, we should say that both lines should be pursued. For example, I should advocate British Imperial Services linking up the different parts of the Empire, but co-operating to the maximum with the lines of other countries, both by the synchronisation of time-tables and by the selection of convenient junctions and similar means, avoiding cut-throat nationalistic competition. I have already mentioned the Italian and Greek agreements, and have expressed the hope of reaching a new agreement with Persia. These are examples of the growing spirit of ready international co-operation which I hope to see developed still further. While the Italian Government, for example, have given us facilities for crossing Italy, we have been able to give them reciprocal facilities to operate to the United Kingdom, Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus and Aden.

We have also endeavoured, in the various through routes, so far as possible to arrange time-tables so that at points where there are junctions one route may fit in with the other route running from that junction. Your Lordships will thus see that our communications with the East as far as India can reasonably be expected to be maintained and, year by year, improved and developed. Beyond India to the Far East and Australia we are actively pursuing certain proposals which may enable us to establish an air service in those regions connecting up the route to London. The noble Viscount asked for Papers. I do not know if there are any particular Papers that he wishes to have. If there are, I shall be very glad, assuming that they are not of a confidential nature, to supply them.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the full statement that he has made. I think we can congratulate him on the successful negotiation of the difficulties that existed previously in regard to European countries. The only point on which he was not very specific was the situation in India. He said that internal routes were to be organised, but—perhaps I did not quite appreciate his full meaning—I did not hear any mention of dates in that connection. Apart from that, I think the statement that he made was very satisfactory, and I am very glad to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes past five o'clock.