HL Deb 05 February 1976 vol 367 cc1430-6

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I shall repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade. The Statement is as follows:

"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 honourable friend the Minister of State at the 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 arranging immediate discussions on the practical details of the operations with the Federal Aviation Administration. BA 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 Bahrein 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."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, from these Benches we wish to welcome in the warmest possible terms the Statement which has just been repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. The whole Concorde saga is a tribute to the skill, enthusiasm and ability of both British and French scientists and technologists. It is a notable achievement of co-operation between these two European nations and between their national airlines. We hope that the trial period of flights to John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, and Dulles International Airport, Washington, will be successful. We believe that a special word of congratulation is due to the team which has argued the case for Concorde before the United States Secretary of Transportation, Mr. Coleman.

We have only two minor points to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. First, are the Government in a position to give us any information on the joint researches with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into stratospheric pollution, particularly as concerns Concorde? Secondly, will the Government indicate that they will give every support to British Airways when the court actions which we understand to be pending concerning pollution and noise are heard?

In general, this is a milestone in world aviation history and everybody here wishes Concorde all the success, both technical and commercial, which this outstanding aircraft deserves.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches also wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, for repeating the Statement made in another place on Concorde. As the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, has already done, we wish to congratulate the British team which went to see Mr. Coleman. In particular, we wish to congratulate Mr. Gerald Kaufman, the Minister of State at the Department of Industry. I feel that otherwise Concorde might easily have become a member of an endangered species. There was one omission in the Statement—no mention has been made of the fares. Would the Government be able at some time to give any indication of whether it will be possible not to have such a high surcharge on these fares across the Atlantic? Like the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, we too should like to know whether the results of the stratospheric tests being made between NASA and British Airways can be made public, particularly for the benefits of those who are detractors and who are anti-Concorde.

With regard to noise—which is one matter, I gather from the Statement and from Mr. Coleman's statement, that has caused most of the consternation in America—it may interest your Lordships to know that the other day a Concorde left Fairford with maximum weight on a normal take-off, and because the pilot employed the proper technique it reached only 107PNDB, which is well under the noise limits at London and New York. Therefore we should like an assurance that the pilots are specifically trained with regard to noise as this seems to be the greatest stumbling block. Can we have an assurance from the Government that if Governor Carey is very difficult about Concorde going into the John F. Kennedy Airport at New York we will, with the French, fight the engagement to a successful conclusion? I hope that possibly Her Majesty may travel in Concorde to the bicentennial celebrations.


My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their general welcome of the Statement, and in particular for their kind remarks about my honourable friend Mr. Kaufman. I shall certainly convey those remarks to him personally. I am sure that he and the rest of the team which went to America to appear before Mr. Coleman are very grateful for what both noble Lords have said.

Both noble Lords asked me about the tests, mentioned in the Statement, which we are conducting with NASA. As noble Lords will recognise, these tests, by their nature, are bound to take some considerable time and that, I should imagine, would be a matter of months at least, but I am quite certain that they will be published in some form once they are completed. Both noble Lords also mentioned the possibility of court actions in America. The airlines are the parties immediately concerned and, as I understand it, are already involved in those actions. If the Government have a right to intervene, and if we judge that our case would be best served by doing so, we shall do so.

The noble Earl asked me about the fares. It is essential not only that the Concorde operation should meet the conditions laid down by Mr. Coleman and pass this trial period with flying colours, but also that this trial period should enable the airlines to prove that it is a commercial success. In the first instance the fares will have to be agreed in the normal way with IATA and then by the Governments concerned, and I understand that they will involve some surcharge.


My Lords, I apologise that I was listening to the original Statement and not to the echo in this House: but I did move into my place immediately afterwards. Could the Minister say whether, now that this has been achieved, as a result of a very careful appreciation by the United States Government, we could not pursue now with the Australian Government, in a slightly more robust way and with a greater sense of urgency, the completion of that route? We should not now sit back and depend entirely, important as it is, on the North Atlantic route. We should drive on now to clear the route from Bahrein over, or near to, India, on to Singapore, and on to Australia. Could the Government now give this a real sense of urgency so that Concorde is seen not only in the United States but all over the world as a great merit of British engineering and British aerospace industry?


My Lords, I trust that if the noble Lord had listened to the echo rather than the original he would have found it accurate. Certainly the Government have been pursuing, and will continue to pursue, the question of other routes for Concorde extremely robustly and with a great sense of urgency.


My Lords, it is perhaps unusual for someone on these Benches to come into the discussion on a Statement. But from time to time I have been individually concerned with the diplomatics of this question and I have a couple of things to say which have not yet been said. There are three reasons why this is a great day for congratulation and satisfaction. The first is that in a period when we have had the most difficult relations, on occasion, with our French friends, there is one big project with which we have persisted throughout despite all criticism—and this goes for Governments of both major Parties—and that is the Concorde project. It will be a great asset in terms of Anglo-French relations that we can congratulate not only ourselves, but also each other, on what I have heard christened as an Entente Concordiale.

Secondly, there is another great source of satisfaction. The denigrators of the United States (of whom there are too many in this country), tend to assume that all American decision making, particularly quasi-judicial decision making, is prompted either by nationalism or by corruption. I think that we owe a great deal to the courage and objectivity of Mr. Coleman, and of the Administration, that he has made a courageous decision which does not coincide with a great deal of sentiment or with whatever there may be of nationalist pretensions. That is also a matter of great satisfaction.

Thirdly, there is a point which I have mentioned in your Lordships' House before. If we study the post-Second World War history of British aircraft construction we see that it has had some triumphs but it has had a terrible number of disappointments, whether due to technical failure or financial exigencies, or somehow just a failure of will to finish something which we have begun. It is outstandingly good for national morale, and for technical morale, in this country that, despite all the objections—some rational, some irrational—this project has been pursued to its, so far, successful end. May I add my congratulations to those of the Party spokesman, with particular congratulations to Mr. Kaufman? I wish to asks one question complementary to the last question. Will we also now redouble our efforts to convince those countries who are interested, but have hitherto doubted whether it really will be in their interests, also to buy the Anglo-French Concorde?


My Lords, the only question I have to answer is the last one put by the noble Lord. I do not think that it is a question of redoubling our efforts, but certainly we welcome the opportunity which this decision gives Concorde to prove itself on what is an extremely important route.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say, once the service is started, what the frequency will be on the North Atlantic?


My Lords, as I said in the Statement, Mr. Coleman's decision grants permission for up to two flights each per day to John F. Kennedy Airport, and one each per day to Dulles International Airport.


My Lords, I should like to ask a brief question. How many Concorde aircraft are at present flying, or are ready to fly immediately?


My Lords, I am afraid that I am not entirely certain of the answer to that; perhaps I could let the noble Lord know. In all, 16 aircraft will be built, but I am not sure exactly how many are actually flying at this moment.


My Lords, I am somewhat reluctant to puncture the general atmosphere of euphoria and self-congratulation. May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, whether he himself has listened to Concorde? I live about 20 miles from Bristol and, from time to time, I am overflown by the aeroplane. It seems to me that when it is flying subsonically about as slowly as it can it makes a quite intolerable noise. Secondly, is the noble Lord satisfied with the fuel consumption of this aeroplane? Is it not the case that it wastes a very great quantity of fuel in relation to the number of passengers carried? I was glad to hear the noble Lord say that tests would be made into stratospheric pollution, but I should like to query whether the aircraft which may be causing the pollution is the right vehicle from which these tests should be carried out. Finally, my Lords, may I express the personal opinion that this aircraft is an example of misapplied ingenuity.


My Lords, I have not listened to Concorde, but I was not aware that it was an absolute prerequisite for noble Lords speaking in this House on this subject that they should. Neither have I flown in it. I understand that since commercial services started from Heathrow there have been 47 complaints about the noise, but 14 people have also telephoned to say that Concorde is less noisy than other aircraft or that there has been an improvement inthe noise level since the endurance flying programme.