HL Deb 05 December 1973 vol 347 cc593-603

2.41 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the views of the Airline Users Committee that the withdrawal of passenger check-in facilities at West London Air Terminal will cause hardship to passengers, and particularly to the elderly; and that the British Airways case for this action on economic grounds has not convinced the Committee, who ask that the Ter- minal shall continue as a check-in point until the expected 1976 underground rail link is opened.


Yes, my Lords, the Chairman of the Committee, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has drawn the attention of my honourable friend the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping to the Committee's views on this matter. I understand that, in response to the Committee's criticisms, the British Airways Board have now given details of the additional action they propose to take to try to ensure that passengers do not suffer hardship after the check-in facilities at the West London Air Terminal are withdrawn at the end of this year. The Board have also offered to co-operate fully with the Committee in monitoring the working of the new arrangements in the early months of next year, so that any hardship that emerges in practice can be quickly detected.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have read British Airways defence and find it peculiarly unconvincing? Is he also aware that, since I put down my Parliamentary Question, a new situation has arisen which makes quite unacceptable in the broad national interest the closing of the West London Air Terminal? Is it not a fact that the Government are urging fuel economy in every direction, and endeavouring to set an example themselves? Is this not a deliberate encouragement by British Airways to passengers to use their own cars to go to Heathrow, and is not that a travesty of the Government's own policy? To have 60 persons in a coach, and the alternative proposed by British European Airways is 60 individual cars taking those passengers to Heathrow Airport, is surely completely contrary to the Government's urging of economy? If British Airways are not willing to suspend their proposal during this national fuel emergency, is it not necessary for the Government, with the powers that they possess under the Act, to intervene to stop this needless waste of fuel taking place?


My Lords, may I say first of all to my noble friend that the British Airways Board are not closing the West London Terminal; what they are doing is withdrawing the check-in facilities. This will not necessarily mean—and we shall have to see how it works out in practice—that fewer people will use the West London Terminal. As I understand it, the purpose of the British Airways Board in doing this is to make better use of their buses, to see that they are more full than they are at the present time; and they will do this by running regular services at specified times.


My Lords, I am sorry, but that is no answer at all. British Airways themselves say that 20 per cent. of their passengers at present use the Terminal. Twenty per cent. of, say, 10 million is 2 million people using the Terminal. What the British Airways Board are doing, and if the Government do not take steps they are countenancing this action, is to waste fuel, in that they are endeavouring to drive that 20 per cent. into private cars which will use fuel which need not be used if coaches are used in place of individual cars.


My Lords, the buses are surely used primarily because they are the most convenient way for this 20 per cent. to get to the London Airport, and the probability is that they will be more used as a result of the fuel shortage, and the need will be met by the bus service. At the present time, individual buses are running to meet individual flights, and that is not the best use of the resources of buses available.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the closing of the facilities at the West London Air Terminal would deprive over 1 million people of a very great benefit which they have enjoyed, and that those million people will include the old people of Britain and those who cannot afford to take motor transport to Heathrow? It will add to the congestion at Heathrow, and many of us—indeed, I suspect most in this House—support the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, in the fight that they have made to bring some sense into the Government on this particular matter.


My Lords, it is of course true that this will transfer the check-in from West London Air Terminal to Heathrow. If I may have the indulgence of the House, I will say exactly what the proposals are in Mr. Marking's own words to meet the Committee's needs: They would insert a special slip in their tickets, carefully explaining the conditions on which the bus service from West London Air Terminal would be offered from 1 January next and clearly indicating what time passengers should allow for their journey to Heathrow in order to be reasonably certain of catching their flights;

  1. "ii. They would take responsibility for anyone who despite following this advice missed his plane because a bus had been delayed on the M.4, booking him on to the next available flight and, if necessary, meeting the cost of a night's hotel accommodation at Heathrow;
  2. "iii. They would ensure that a supervisor was permanently on duty at Terminal No. 1, who would ensure that porters helped bus passengers through check-in quickly if their bus arrived at Heathrow with little time to spare;
  3. "iv. They would co-operate with the Airline Users Committee in monitoring the system during the first three months of next year, and would then consider carefully what further action could be taken, if despite their expectations, significant difficulties for passengers had arisen."
I would add to that that they are increasing the checking-in facilities at Heathrow, and of course, as noble Lords will be aware, an extra lift is being provided by the British Airports Authority.


My Lords, will my noble friend explain the logic of closing the check-in facilities at Kensington, and at the same time keeping them open at the old B.O.A.C. place at Victoria? If one can be kept open, why not the other, or why can they not be combined?


My Lords, the conditions are entirely different for long-distance B.O.A.C. services, which will continue to be served by special buses meeting particular planes. In the main, the planes in that case have a much larger capacity.


My Lords, could the noble Lord explain why there is such a body as the Airlines Users Committee? Presumably they are asked to make suggestions; but when they do the Government, or the B.A.A. people, completely ignore their recommendations. What is the point of having the Airline Users Committee?


My Lords, I have tried to make it plain that the B.A.A. have not ignored the Committee's recommendations. They have gone as far as they feel possible to meet them.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the whole House feels that they have in fact ignored the feelings of your Lordships, of the public, and of everybody who wants the airlines and the whole situation to succeed? Is he further aware that a slip in one's ticket is not the same as the guarantee of catching a plane?


My Lords, we have gone over this ground very often, but a guarantee of catching the plane can mean that the other 80 per cent. who go direct are held up a long time, and that they may miss their connections if they have to fly on further. It is quite impossible to guarantee that in all circumstances a bus will reach an aircraft unless one is prepared to accept substantial delays.


My Lords, is the noble Lord not aware that there are in fact no guarantees, and that flights are frequently held up for long periods for no good reason other than the "technical" reasons which are advanced by the airports? Would the noble Lord not agree that the psychology of the air transport user should be considered in this matter, and that a person considers that he has started his flight at the point where he checks in? This brings us back to the point which he noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, brought up in the first place: does the noble Lord not agree that one should encourage users of air transport—not merely not discourage them, but encourage them—to book in at the nearest central point, so as to save fuel in this emergency? When the Underground route is available, by all means let us make the check-in point at the end of the Underground. But would the noble Lord not agree to look at this matter again?


My Lords, so far as delays are concerned, there are of course delays for other reasons, besides the fact that buses may be late. These are mainly related to the safety of the operations of the planes themselves. So far as concerns the second point that the noble Viscount made, I suggest to noble Lords that it has to be remembered that this is practically the only service of its kind in the world.



Yes, indeed. Secondly, the check-in facilities have already been withdrawn from foreign airlines at West London Air Terminal. That was done at the beginning of October, and no complaints at all have been received so far by the bus operators.


My Lords, could my noble friend amplify his curious remark about the circumstances being different with B.O.A.C. because the aeroplanes are larger? Surely the buses are the same size.


My Lords, I was considering the occupancy of those buses, the number of people who use them. It is a fact that a great many of the buses leave West London Air Terminal very sparsely occupied.


My Lords, could my noble friend say whether there have been any complaints from foreign airlines due to the withdrawal of these technical facilities at Cromwell Road Air Terminal? Further, can he say what is the estimated financial saving for the year 1974 from the withdrawal of these technical facilities, and whether it is worth it?


My Lords, I am advised that there have been no such complaints. Indeed, as the airlines have not got such facilities of their own at those places from which they start, it is hardly surprising, perhaps, that there have been no complaints. I am told that the annual saving is about half a million pounds a year.


My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that the withdrawal of these check-in facilities will prove in themselves to be a false economy? What is to happen to those who are engaged in the service at the present moment? Further, is he aware that, as a Minister at the Dispatch Box, he is the best stone-wailer I have ever met in replying to a question? What about the question which has been asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, about the users' councils? Why did we set them up if the recommendations from those users' councils to various Departments of Government are going to be ignored?


My Lords, I have said already that they have not been ignored, and what I have read out shows the extent to which the British Airways Board are trying to meet their point. The noble Lord in particular will know how these things are done. There has of course had to be a great deal of negotiation with the unions on this matter in order to place people elsewhere and to absorb them elsewhere. It is the belief of the B.A.B. that they will be much better employed and much more efficiently employed elsewhere, and that is one of the reasons for the step which has been taken—to make the best use of our scarce labour resources.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister, in his unenviable position, whether he is aware that there is limited cause for congratulation in that British Airways have put down what they ought to do anyway? May I add to that the question whether he would not feel that a failure to consider the compromise part of the noble Lord's Question is really a breakdown of management generally—an inability to bridge a gap which will last only a few years?


My Lords, it might last only a few years—I think the noble Lord has the completion of the Underground system to London Heathrow in mind—but that is likely to be two and a half to three years, and it is a substantial amount of money which is involved. But this is a compromise solution which is put forward, and no doubt the Airline Users' Committee will be considering the compromise provision as well. I hope that they will co-operate in monitoring it, so as to make further improvements as time goes on.


My Lords, in view of the feelings of the House, would my noble friend consider calling upon the Civil Aviation Authority, who have a duty under the Civil Aviation Act—thanks, I may say, to this House —to look after the consumers' interests, to examine whether they should impose a condition on the present licences of B.E.A. affected by these withdrawals of service until the consumers' dispute has been settled?


My Lords, my noble friend will be well aware that the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority is the chairman of the Airline Users' Committee. And it is not for the Government to dictate to the Civil Aviation Authority how it should act.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might appeal to the noble Lord the Leader of the House. I have kept out of the exchanges to-day, being a member of the Airline Users' Committee, but I hoped to appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, as Leader of the House, at the end of these exchanges. May I ask him whether he is aware that the grievous disquiet which has been shown by all quarters of the House has now lasted for 19 months? Is he further aware that in the Press release which was made public on November 21 the statement was made, based on material provided by B.E.A., that the number of planes delayed had been one plane every two days over last year and that the percentage of delays was 0.4 per cent.? Now in view of this disquiet—and these details never get into the papers—may I ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House whether he would use his best endeavours to see that a Statement is made in your Lordships' House before Christmas as to what will be the future of the check-in facilities at Gloucester Road after January 1?


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, I wonder whether I could also rise and ask a question of the noble Lord the Leader of the House on a rather parallel point. There is obviously grave disquiet in the House, and if we had an opportunity to debate this subject and vote it is quite likely that a very firm expression of opinion would emerge. We have not very much time before Christmas. May I ask the noble Lord whether he will consider something along the following lines? First of all, would it be possible to postpone action until the House has had an opportunity to debate this matter? That is something that might be discussed through the usual channels. My noble friend Lady Burton had hoped to have a debate, but there has not been time. We might then hear both sides of the case; and I am bound to say, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that his answers do not appear to have been very convincing up till now. Would the Leader of the House consider this point? Certainly from the Opposition Benches we should be glad to try to co-operate in any way.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, has already been in touch with the Prime Minister on this question, and she will receive a reply from him which represents the views of the Government as a whole. Further, since she spoke to me about it before the Recess, I have been in touch with the Departmental Ministers concerned and I can tell her that what my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has said represents the views of those Ministers who are directly concerned—and I know this from my own discussions. As to a debate in this House, we are to discuss the British Airways Board Order quite shortly, and certainly through the usual channels we could see whether that might be the occasion for a wider debate.


My Lords, when?


I think probably before Christmas. I should like to pursue that point with the noble Lord and see what the content of the Order is—whether it deals with this particular point. I appreciate the strength of feeling on this matter, but it is also important for the House to appreciate that statutory responsibilities are placed on Ministers and on public authorities, and there is a real difficulty here. I was going to intervene, anyway. We have had 24 minutes of Question Time with one short Question and one very long one. The third Question is from my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye on exactly the same matter, and I think that we ought to move on to that Question.


My Lords, would the Leader of the House permit me to put one pedestrian point? If the Government's proposals go through, would the Minister be kind enough to make representations to British Airways that those of us who use the West London Terminal would be greatly helped if we could be allowed the facilities to move our own baggage, and not be told that we are not allowed to shift it without employing a porter? In other words, bring it into line with the arrangements at Heathrow. That would be a considerable advantage. I do not ask for a reply to-day, but would the noble Lord be good enough to make that representation?


Yes, my Lords, I will certainly take that up.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I trust that I do not deserve the rebuke from the Leader of the House which seemed to me to be rather implied in his remarks. I think that I am quite entitled to ask this Question. It was not I who took up a long time on supplementary questions, but other noble Lords. Therefore I beg to ask my Question, the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, if British Airways continue their insistence on closing the check-in facilities at West London Terminal, they will advance to British Airways the compromise proposal that coach departures shall be linked to specific flights, thus guaranteeing to terminal departing passengers their air connections.


My Lords, I understand that the British Airways Board considered this proposal carefully before deciding to take the compromise action I have already described in answering the noble Lord's previous Question.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the compromise proposal will not meet the position which I think should obtain? Will the noble Lord consider the possibility of the Government's making a Statement as and when we have an opportunity further to debate this matter, so that questions raised by noble Lords on all sides of the House can be properly and adequately answered to the satisfaction of the House, which is certainly not satisfied at the present time?


My Lords, I am aware that most of the noble Lords, all but one, who have asked questions have not been satisfied. But there will undoubtedly be an opportunity for noble Lords to put their points when we next have an opportunity to discuss this matter, and I, certainly, shall be forewarned of the sort of points that they will be likely to put and shall deal with them to the best of my ability. The narrow point of this Question is whether we should be able to guarantee that a person who checks in and catches a particular bus will get on to the plane. This is the point. I have dealt with it already, and I must leave it to the House.


My Lords, as obviously the Government's desire is to meet the wishes of the travelling public if they can, would the Government invite Members of this House to describe the sufferings they have gone through at foreign airports, almost all of which use the system which British Airways are now about to adopt? Clearly, under the new system it would seem that people must have suffered very much abroad, where they do not enjoy the generous facilities and assurances which British Airways are prepared to offer.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will take into account what the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has said in making up their minds.