HL Deb 18 July 1979 vol 401 cc1465-95

5.4 p.m.

Lord BOYD-CARPENTER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will establish an independent inquiry into the arrangements for handling arriving passengers' baggage at Heathrow Airport. The noble Lord said: My Lords. I rise to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name. As your Lordships will appreciate, it relates to the narrow but not unimportant issue of the handling of passenger baggage at Heathrow Airport. It is an issue of substantial public significance. It is, after all, the fact that the great majority of those who come to this country, whether as visiting businessmen, or on holiday, first arrive at Heathrow. Their first impression of this country, its attractiveness, its efficiency, and the way it is run, is the impression they get at that airport. The efficient functioning of that airport is therefore a matter of some public importance, and I am sure is so regarded by Her Majesty's Government.

It is also the fact, as your Lordships know well, that tourism, coupled with the income of the airlines, is the biggest single contributor to the earning of foreign exchange of any economic activity in this country. As a very large—though not the whole—proportion of that tourist trade flows through Heathrow Airport, its efficient functioning, and its capacity to attract rather than to repel potential passengers, has some substantial significance for our national economy. I therefore make no apology to your Lordships for seeking to invite your Lordships' attention, and to seek a reply, and, if I am not being wildly optimistic, even action from the Government in this connection. I hold the view—I do not know whether it is generally accepted in this House—that the question of the handling of baggage at Heathrow Airport gives rise to very substantial complaint, and that in fact the standard of service has deteriorated over recent years. It has certainly not improved. I have now no official connection with any aspect of the aviation world. My only claim, apart from some past familiarity with certain aspects of it, is that like many of your Lordships I find that my business life causes me to travel very frequently, and I am therefore a frequent user of Heathrow Airport.

I should like in a moment, by way of illustration, to describe one particular and recent experience that I had. But I hope my noble friend who is to reply will allow me at this stage to say that, knowing him, I am confident that the reply will not consist of the familiar excuses which all of us have heard on many occasions. Let us discount them at once. I know that the British Airports Authority, who are responsible for Heathrow, have suffered from certain disadvantages. They suffered one serious disadvantage from the refusal of the previous Administration to allow them to get ahead with building the fourth terminal, the operation of which undoubtedly would have relieved general pressure on all aspects of the airport. They suffered from the fact that the previous Government insisted, before giving permission for that construction to go ahead, on a public inquiry which was certainly not a legal necessity and, whatever its outcome, obviously cannot be allowed to frustrate—though it has succeeded in delaying—the construction of a necessary part of the economic infrastructure of this country.

They have suffered from unhappy industrial relations, and I would not want this afternoon to allot any blame there. I know that there is a whole batch of excuses. The noble Lord could give them in his sleep. I could give them in mine. What I am hoping for from him, particularly because I know he has practical experience of the aircraft industry—and until he went into public office he was a director of an extremely efficient and well-run airline, and he has a certain measure of impartiality because that airline operates out of Gatwick—is that he will indicate that the Government are not just going to rely on vague assurances of the British Airports Authority, but are going to insist, either in the way suggested in my Question, or in some other way, on getting a grip on this matter and ensuring that improvements are made.

I know that your Lordships' House much prefers practical personal experience to support a case in debate to vague generalities. I will therefore quote one personal experience. I have a number that could be quoted, but I do not want to weary your Lordships and I think one will suffice. This was as recently as the afternoon of Thursday, 14th June, when I flew in from Zurich on British Airways flight No. 615, the aircraft of which got on to the stand at Terminal 1 at just before 1450 hours that afternoon. The day of the week and the time are significant because it was neither a peak day, nor a peak hour of the day, for traffic.

We were taken by buses to the terminal, passed quickly, efficiently and politely through immigration and went to the baggage reclaim hall. We arrived there at a moment or so before 1500 hours. The scene there was one of cloisteral calm. Four of those machines which for some reason arc called carousel—as those of your Lordships who are familiar with casinos will know, they resemble broadly very large roulette wheels and are, on the whole, as chancy in their operation as that particular instrument of gambling—stood in immobile dignity. One had a flight number on it. It was not the number of my flight. The large hall was fairly empty, but even so there were only a handful of seats and there was no sign of human life other than a few arriving passengers and some porters. There was present—and this is significant—no representative of the Airports Authority whom I could see, or any representative of the airline.

Peace and calm brooded for the next 10 minutes, then the carousel which had a flight number on it began to move. One suitcase appeared and it revolved with dignity. I did not count the number of times because when it began I did not realise it was going to go round so many times. No one appeared to claim it; I assumed the passenger had probably died of old age since its arrival. Then eventually it stopped and the one piece was taken away, and I do not know what its fate was. Another carousel down the hall woke to life and about a dozen pieces of luggage eventually appeared on it and about a dozen people collected them and went away. Calm returned, and no information of any sort was given—until at a time which was very nearly one hour after the aircraft had landed, the number of my own flight came up on one of the carousels and it woke into life. By good fortune which one so rarely encounters, my wife's and my baggage was the first on it. I grabbed it and departed, and therefore do not know the rest of the story.

May I put one other factual matter before I comment. That same evening some colleagues, who had been on the same business trip as I had, arrived by Swissair at Terminal 2, where the situation was the exact opposite. The baggage of three crowded flights was piled on one carousel. It duly appeared, but as it was piled three deep only athletes, in the peak of condition and prepared to leap upon the machine and grab their baggage from underneath the pile, could do anything about it for a long time, until by erosion of time the upper stratum had been removed. Again, I was not present on that occasion, but I am told that no indication was given by any official as to what on earth was happening.

I now come to my comments. I realise as well as anybody that these machines can break down and there can be trouble with labour and so on; but for the unloading of a moderate sized aircraft—the aircraft I was on was a Trident III—a gap of nearly an hour between the landing and the delivery of the first baggage, when the flight itself took little more than an hour, is really not acceptable. If such a delay for some unexpected reason takes place, those responsible should make an announcement and even, if they are feeling particularly genial, an apology. To leave passengers waiting possibly indefinitely gives an extraordinarily bad impression. And if there are to be delays of this kind, there should be adequate seating. People should be made comfortable, but they also should be given an opportunity to know when their baggage is likely to come, so that if they have urgent business or are feeling tired they can leave and come back and collect it at some predetermined point later on.

There are a variety of things that an imaginative direction could do to ease the situation which practical difficulties may well cause. The impression made on a number of foreigners from Europe on my flight was undoubtedly that at this airport nobody cared. Nobody gave one the slightest indication as to when one was likely to see one's luggage, if indeed ever, and no facilities or amenities to while away the time were provided. This is a matter requiring fundamental rethinking, not just somebody looking at the machinery and seeing if it can be speeded up by two or three minutes. It needs a fundamental re-think of the whole system.

I have one practical suggestion to make which would only mitigate the trouble, but which I think could help at any rate to reduce the number of those who suffer from it. In the United States internal airlines frequently have on the aircraft what is called the cloakroom system: those who are able-bodied enough to handle their baggage can themselves carry it on to the aeroplane, put it in a sort of cloakroom near the exit, collect it on arrival and walk straight off. That is of course no answer for the unfit, the elderly, people with heavy baggage and long-term tourists, but for the businessman in a hurry it is an extremely sensible system. I always adopt the principle with air baggage that one should treat it like liquor—not take more than one can carry—and this system would at least mitigate the problem by reducing the number of people having to wait for their baggage to emerge from the hold. But it is not an answer, just a mitigation, though it is something on the lines of an answer which I would hope Her Majesty's Government, with all their resources, will, in consultation with the British Airports Authority and the airlines, who are both involved in this, produce.

I realise that the fact that there are split responsibilities—as I understand it, the airlines are responsible for getting the baggage off the aircraft but the British Airports Authority is responsible for providing the machinery and premises in which the baggage is received—makes for administratively an awkward system. If one splits responsibilities it is, I think, all our experience that one is apt to get something of a breakdown, with each side only too easily willing to blame the other.

My plea this evening is, in brief, quite simple, and I am glad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, is to speak; she has done so much work for the airline traveller over the years. If during my time at the CAA I did one good service to the airline passenger, it was in appointing the noble Baroness to the Airline Users' Committee. My plea is simply the one with which, in the days when we had The Times newspaper, so many people used to end their letters to that great organ of opinion: " Something must be done ".

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I was a great nuisance to him on the Airline Users' Committee and, nuisance though I was, I could not have served under a chairman who was more fair or more considerate. Having him here and being able to join with him in what I will not call an onslaught but at least some requests to the Government has particular value.

I am quite sure that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will remember that we almost defeated the previous Government —the Government I supported—on the air security charges, and 1 recall that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, told us that he had never spent a more unhappy afternoon than the afternoon when we discussed those matters. I hope that his memories, and ours, of today's debate will be much happier. I hope very much that he will feel able to agree to what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has said, and that he will be able to accept the noble Lord's request for an independent inquiry, which I hope would he conducted quickly. We all smiled at the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and we may smile at one that I propose to give later; but that does not deter from the real seriousness of the position, and I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will be able to do something about it.

On 27th June we had a debate in which my noble friend Lord Parry told us that in 1968 the tourism industry earned us £383 million and by 1978 that figure had multiplied more than eight times. In fact in that year we earned £3 billion from foreign visitors. I want to quote two very short statements made by the British Tourist Authority in connection with that debate. The tourist authority told us two facts that we all know, but I think they should be underlined and should be put on the record. The first statement was: Tourism is an important creator of jobs. The British Tourist Authority and the tourist boards believe that 1½ million jobs are directly and indirectly dependent on tourism ". The second statement was: Britain could greatly increase its tourism income in the next few years—but this cannot be taken for granted. Britain, through the travel trade and the British Tourist Authority, must increase its overseas marketing ". Eighteen months ago, on 25th January 1978, we had a debate in this House on tourism and the economy. Many of us taking part in today's debate were able to contribute to that earlier debate. I was able to make a point which many other noble Lords also made and which I think was acceptable to everybody, and on which we could have no argument. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, opened with the point this afternoon. It is that the welcome received by a visitor from overseas arriving by air in London is of immense importance because it colours his whole attitude towards Britain; and I believe furthermore that it colours his whole attitude as to whether or not he will visit this country again. I consider that the handling of baggage is one of the most important of the early stages of his welcome.

Going back a few months, I recall when Terminal 2 was the real problem. Passengers wrote to me in sheer frustration, while our own businessmen returning from Europe wrote in despair, at the effect that there was on visitors. At that time the frustration was in particular due to the fact that in Terminal 2 there were notices to the effect that a passenger could not have a trolley until he had collected his baggage from the carousel. If he went to get one he could not have it. The baggage was heavy and so many people could not struggle with it to where the trolleys were being guarded. At the same time it was suggested that for reasons of safety people should not leave their baggage unattended. That combination of circumstances completely defeated the foreigners and greatly worried the businessmen who wrote to me. One correspondent thought that I would not believe what he told me and so he took a photograph of the sign which stated that a passenger could not have a trolley until he had collected his baggage. I forwarded that photograph to the relevant quarter.

Coming up-to-date I should say that the main complaints today seem to me to relate to Terminal 3. Last month I spoke at a world airports conference in London, and one of the delegates from the USA said that he was making his 123rd trip. He had kept a careful record of his trips and on four out of every 10 his baggage took more than one hour to get to the carousel. Official returns show that the American businessman was no exception. Numbers of passengers have had to wait—and do wait—for much longer than an hour, and many are now saying, as I am sure the noble Lord knows: Aviod Heathrow if you can—


My Lords, I want to try to be helpful on this point and I wonder whether the noble Baroness can answer a question: one hour from when to when? Can she be specific?


My Lords, I am afraid that I did not hear what the noble Lord said.


Can the noble Baroness be specific as to when the one hour applied? Was it from aircraft touchdown, or from aircraft on stand, or perhaps from when the doors were opened?


The American who has made 123 visits had to wait one hour for his baggage to arrive when he got to the carousel—and this has happened on four out of 10 trips.


One hour from when?


One hour from when he reached the carousel.

I do not think that anyone wants the advice " Avoid Heathrow if you can " to spread. It would have a disastrous effect on our income and on our tourist trade. I believe that an independent inquiry is the only way to find out what is happening and what can be done to alleviate the situation. I do not think that anybody could deny that it exists.

The reasons or excuses given for the delays are endless. One hears of specialised unloading vehicles for the 747s not being available and of others being unserviceable. One also hears of staff sickness, of industrial disputes, of some ground equipment vehicles used to move cargo and baggage being simply too old and of inadequate design, requiring heavy maintenance. I am sure that all these are true facts, but they do not interest the passengers. All the passengers want is their luggage delivered promptly; and if they cannot get it delivered promptly here, they will go elsewhere.

I said that this was a general complaint. I spent this morning at a meeting of the Institute of Travel Managers, of which I happen to be the president, and I said that this matter was to be raised in your Lordships' House this afternoon. The travel managers are closely involved with sending people to and from foreign parts, and if I had taken note of all the examples that they gave me we should have been here a long time this evening. I point out to the noble Lord—though probably he does not need to be told this—that these complaints really are genuine and are causing people much worry. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and I have not made them up; they really do exist.

Going on from that point, I had wondered whether I could stretch the interpretation of this Unstarred Question concerning arriving passengers' baggage so as to include the baggage of passengers arriving en route for departure, which seemed to me quite a literal interpretation. However, I shall leave that aspect of the matter for another occasion, though mentioning it now gives me the chance to ask the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to note three points for his file. In January 1974, as this House well knows, the check-in service for passengers and their baggage was withdrawn from the West London air terminal although it was used by more than 1⅓ million passengers per annum. In April this year the remaining airport bus services were withdrawn from the West London air terminal, although more than 1 million passengers used them in the preceding 12 months. Passengers wishing to use the bus service to Heathrow now have to use that which operates from the Victoria terminal. This goes to Terminals 1 and 3. There is no service to Terminal 2; and I think that that should be on the record.

It seems to me that these three points are relevant to any arrangements for handling the baggage of passengers arriving en route for departure. I do not want to add to this interpretation this evening because I do not think that that would be the wish of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter; but I wanted these facts in the Minister's file, together with my fear that soon we may see the bus service from Victoria withdrawn, too. I say that because a year ago we were given an assurance in this House that there was no question of withdrawing the bus service from the West London air terminal. Then we find, on April 1st this year, that it has gone—just like that. I think it is important to have these things on the record, and I have the column numbers if the noble Lord wants them.

I should also like to say to him that it is rather difficult, because when one raises these matters with authority—and these are matters concerning passengers and their baggage—one is told, " We have not had any complaints ". I think that if the people concerned went to Victoria and saw the conditions at the air terminal there of people getting off the bus with their luggage, they would agree that it really is not good enough. I hope very much that the noble Lord will take account of that.

Earlier, my Lords, I mentioned the world airports conference held in London in June, and in that connection there is one point I should like to raise. We had a discussion for half a day on this question of transport, and the delegate from the USA said that be believed that transport for passengers and their baggage should be provided from the downtown area to the airport concerned. I think I should say that it should be available, because obviously passengers would have to pay for that themselves. But I told the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, that I would be asking him about this. I am not relating it in particular to Heathrow, but I am wondering, in the future—because I think it is tied up with this baggage question—what part public service should have to play in the provision of civil aviation. I am wondering if the noble Lord can tell me whether he thinks that the provision of transport for passengers and their baggage should be made available from the centre of a city or the downtown area to the airport concerned; and, if so, who or what he thinks should be the authority responsible for seeing that such a provision is available.

That is all I wanted to say, my Lords. I am very glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I should like to tell the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, that my businessmen this morning assumed we were going to get a favourable answer, and that all this was going to be put right. I did not say that we were: I merely said that I hoped.

5.33 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for giving us the opportunity to discuss once again this vexed question of the delay in passengers' baggage arriving at Heathrow Airport—a problem which simply does not seem to go away. But before discussing whether another inquiry is likely to produce a solution, I should like to draw attention once more to the causes of the problem, and to note the steps which arc at present being taken to try to alleviate it.

For quite sonic time now passengers at Heathrow have had to wait long, irritating and, I would say, totally unacceptable periods of delay before they can claim their baggage off the carousel and then proceed to go through Customs. This mostly happens, though not entirely, at peak periods. I have been told—and I think the noble Baroness made a point of this—that recently there were quite a few passengers travelling eastwards across the Atlantic, bound for various destinations in Europe, who hitherto had made a point of stopping off for a day or so in the United Kingdom. But now they overfly to Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris in order to avoid this intolerable nuisance. In their so doing, we are, of course, deprived of the foreign exchange which they would have spent in this country, quite apart from the damage that it does to our national image. I drew your Lordships' attention to this on 22nd February, 15th March and 5th April of this year.

The peak periods for arrivals are: Terminal Buildings 1 and 2, 8 to 10 a.m. and again from 4 to 7 p.m.; and for Terminal 3, 6 to 11.30 p.m. As I think your Lordships must already know, the problem is to get the registered baggage offloaded from the aircraft on to the trucks that take it to the terminal buildings, here, after sorting between that baggage for interlining and that to end here in London, it is transferred to the moving belts that take it up to the carousels, from where the passengers can collect it; and to do this over a period of time that does not subject a passenger to an overlong period of waiting after he has gone through immigration.

As an illustration of the point, let us take the case of a large jet carrying, say, 300 passengers, each with two pieces of baggage. That means there will be 600 pieces of baggage to be so handled. But at peak hours the interval for all arrivals is about two minutes. Some aircraft have more than 300 passengers, some have less; many passengers have more than two pieces of baggage each. Then conies the point when a carousel has not cleared the previous load; the next load is kept waiting to be put on to the moving belt; that, in turn, extends back to the offloading of the trucks and their return to the aircraft for more loads; and the delays get progressively worse and worse all along the line. It may be said that the provision of more carousels, more moving belts and bigger loading bays is a possible answer; but, as I have pointed out many times, for some time now Heathrow has been, and is, bursting at the seams, and it appears that there is virtually no more cubic space available in which to instal any such new installations.

A decision to build a fourth terminal is still awaited before they can start work. This is planned to relieve the pressure; but even if a decision comes immediately it is not anticipated that it will be ready much before 1984. The possible extension of the Piccadilly Tube to the new terminal from the central area will probably take much longer, as will the talked-of possible rail link coming in from Feltham. Meantime, Heathrow has now reached a figure of 27 million passengers for the year, and expects to reach a saturation point of 30 million in 1980. What is going to happen in the four-year gap? Some relief may be expected if British Airways will agree to transfer more of its long-haul services from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1 at offpeak periods at Terminal 1. They have already transferred sonic of their Chicago services. With a similar object in view, there was a proposal to move Iberia, TAP and Air Canada to Gatwick, which is being contested by the airlines in question for various very strong reasons. The problem is still to be resolved. The selection and the creation of a third London airport, with all its attendant difficulties, public inquiries and the rest, must take a very long time.

Despite the scarcity of space at the airport, the authorities have now found a way to enlarge the size of the existing carousels and extend the lengths of the moving belts, which will give a greater capacity and enable them to cope with the baggage loads of the larger aircraft. Also, the airlines are producing better machinery to get the baggage out of the aircraft. The airport authorities are also installing TV scanners to help the handling processes. Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked if an independent inquiry should not now be the order of the day. On airport questions there have been a number of inquiries to date. The last one, a public inquiry on the question of a fourth terminal building, has taken a year and a half. A decision to start work is still awaited.

There have been a number of inquiries by the consultative committee at Heathrow specifically into the problem of baggage handling. If another one is to be convened, even at once, we shall probably not get the result much before the end of 1980, or possibly 1981—that is, unless, of course, there is some further system of scanning witnesses to eliminate those eager people who insist on giving evidence, evidence which has virtually little to do with the case in question, and who seem to have the object in mind of getting their names in the papers and their pictures on TV. I shall be much interested to hear whether the Government will establish yet another inquiry; and, if not, perhaps we can be told why.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, this is an aspect of airport life which, I think, Arthur Hailey failed to include in his famous novel. I think that if he had heard what we have heard this afternoon he might have done so. During the past four years, I have been every week, and sometimes twice a week, across the Channel starting at Heathrow. When coming back to London, I have often had to wait almost as long for my baggage as it took me to fly from Brussels to London. I have no strong complaints about Terminal 1. I have had to wait there; but on the whole, I think that things are fairly well handled. But Terminal 2 really has been the end. It has symbolised to me (as I think to many visitors) Britain's current comparable failure to organise and create. The alterations there have been going on for years and now they are almost complete; but even now Terminal 2, in its design and in its amenities, is no more than the kind of airport which any developing country might be proud to have. Of Terminal 3, I have no experience at all.

The worst feature of Terminal 2 has been the luggage handling. They never seem to know which carrousel your baggage will come to until it has arrived there. The luggage trolleys are stored at the far end. Even now, they are unwillingly doled out by an attendant who is performing an unnecessary service. Until recently, as the noble Baroness has said, they would not give you a trolley until you had your luggage. This meant that you might have to drag it the whole length of the hall. I remember a noble Lord suffering from a physical handicap becoming almost apoplectic with righteous indignation when they imposed such a strain on his physique. The fact that he was crippled did not make it possible for him to be given a trolley. Standing all around there are sturdy porters. How they make a living I do not know, because they seldom seem to be employed. I wonder whether they are strictly necessary. I wonder whether they would not be better handling luggage out of sight. Are they on the payroll and how much do they receive in wages?

It is remarkable that the main-line railway stations are often devoid of porters and of luggage trolleys, too, while the airport has a seeming superfluity of them. I should not be surprised, in view of their under-employment, if there were not some kind of restrictive practice going on in Terminal 2—some kind of gentle discouragement to passengers—but it does not seem to have done them any good. This problem has been partially solved now, but not wholly.

I very strongly support the noble Lord's request. There is a particular type of passenger who has a kind of neurosis about losing sight of his baggage. They take it with them everywhere, dragging their heavy bags along the long alleys to take into the aircraft with them. It was not until this afternoon that I realised why the airline companies are so tolerant of these bulky packages and suitcases, which are far bigger than should be permitted to be taken on board. Obviously, the airlines allow them to be taken on board because, if the passenger has the responsibility for taking the baggage off the plane, that solves their problems. However, I may say that their carrying these parcels makes it inconvenient for other passengers who have handed ill their luggage. I feel that something ought to be done to discourage this.

One can see the difficulty arising out of the vast number of passengers and the large aircraft of today. It is a difficult problem, but I am sure it is not an insoluble one. I hope that the inquiry will reveal how it can be solved and how it will be solved.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I intrude with diffidence into this debate, but I do so because my noble friend who opened it asked those of us who have practical experience to say what they have found. I travel from Glasgow to Heathrow practically every week during the time that this House is in Session and I arrive between 1.30 p.m. on most days and, later on, two hours later. Let me explain that I carry my luggage myself, otherwise the situation would be hopeless. I get down off the plane and I go to the point where the bus arrives. There I find a pavement about half the width of a pavement of an ordinary street in the City of London. It is piled with trolleys and baggage of the people who are already waiting to get a bus. I have to wade through that mob and generally have to get off the pavement and walk in the roadway, in imminent danger of being mown down by a bus arrival.

Next, I must find where to get a ticket. There is a small window about 18 inches by 18 inches—not much more—and I have to find it. I look hard to find a notice which says " Tickets ". The lettering is about one and a half inches high so that one has to look closely before one can find it. I get in a queue there, and from other countries people are arriving who have foreign money or who have English money in large denominations. We pay £1.20 to get the bus to London. There is one person inside doling out the tickets, giving change, collecting money and so on.

When I have a ticket, I look for a bus. I may have to wait for up to a quarter of an hour before one arrives. When it arrives it comes from another terminal and is already three-quarters full so that sometimes there are only two available seats. That is a lot of help after waiting a quarter of an hour or so. Once on the bus, I have to find somewhere to put my hand luggage. Having done so, the bus proceeds on a devious route to Victoria. I am speaking principally from the time that the West London terminal was done away with. It was quite simple in those days! One got to the West London terminal, got a taxi and was at one's destination quickly.

Now, one gets on the bus and arrives at Victoria having gone round through various routes, eventually on to the river bank and along Grosvenor Road for two or three miles before reaching Victoria Street and going over Ebury Bridge. The bus arrives at the back of Victoria Station aircraft station and then I must get out, not on to the pavement but on to the roadway. Often there is no one to tell people where to go. I happen to know; but people from abroad can have no idea, and most people on the bus are foreigners. I wonder what they think of this country when, after all the trouble they have to go through to get the bus, when they get to Victoria they must find a taxi—and there is room for only three taxis at the place where they must go; and it is through a building. Directly outside, is the main road to Ebury Bridge and taxis are not in the usual course likely to come there very often; so I join a queue and wait there. Before the West London terminal was done away with, I used to arrive here between 1.20 and 1.40 p.m. Now, since having to go round this circuitous route I am here on average 20 minutes later than I used to be. It is the most awful mess that I have ever seen. For anyone who likes organisation, it is obvious that the people who run the show do not know the first thing about it; or how to handle passengers. It is a complete abomination and a disgrace to our country.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, I want to add just one personal experience. On 26th June I arrived at Terminal 2 from France. I had heard that the terminal had been completed and I looked forward to getting through it with greater ease than in the past. I came down to the luggage reclaim hall. There were four gigantic turntables there. There was no indication which one one should go to. One had to go round and look at the indicator in the centre to try to find out which turntable was appropriate to the flight, whereas any sensible person could put up an annunciator which could be seen by everybody from a distance and say: " Flight No. so-and-so. Turntable No. so-and-so ". It would be as simple as that. Instead, one has to try to find the turntable and the right one might not he indicated for quite a long time.

This was on a Tuesday at 3 o'clock. I cannot say that the place was deserted, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, found. It was, on the contrary, very busy, and I could not find a trolley. I found, with great difficulty, a porter. I told him that I wanted to get on to a bus to the West London Terminal. I found to my horror that there was no longer a bus to the West London Terminal. The porter said to me, " You can go on the Underground ". That meant that I would have had to carry my luggage down to the station there and out at the station at this end. I asked him, " Is there no bus? " He said, " There is a Green Line bus which goes to London ". He was very polite and obliging.

He took my baggage round to where the Green Line bus stopped. He left me there and did not even take a tip. For politeness I awarded him 100 per cent. marks. But I had to wait for nearly an hour for a Green Line bus before I could get off to London. When I arrived at this end I was put out at a stop in Buckingham Palace Road, where it is extremely difficult to pick up a taxi. I had to wait nearly half an hour before I found a taxi which was free. This is not a way in which aircraft passengers should be treated.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords will thank the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for raising the issue of the handling of baggage at Heathrow Airport. As Lord Boyd-Carpenter, Lady Burton of Coventry and Lord Amherst have indicated, it is very important that people arriving in this country should feel welcome when they arrive at a major international airport. In a number of ways this was underlined in this House recently in the debate on the service industries, and previously in the debate on tourism which I initiated some 18 months ago.

We should not forget that Heathrow, although it is only the fifth largest airport in the world, is the largest airport for the handling of international traffic. International traffic tends to bring with it a much higher percentage of baggage than an airport which handles largely national passengers. As has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Amherst, there have been a number of inquiries in the past concerning the handling of baggage at Heathrow. In particular, I have in mind the inquiry carried out in 1977 by the Passenger Services Sub-Committee of the Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee. I found that a very useful report, in that it describes the arrangements which exist at the present time for the handling of baggage at Heathrow.

This report made a number of recommendations. In particular, it proposed that baggage handling should be more closely monitored than it has been in the past. They have stated in the report that a target time for the first item of baggage to arrive on the carousel or on the race track should be 20 minutes, and that most airlines set themselves a target time of 45 minutes for the last bag to arrive. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, as we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. He had to wait 60 minutes for his bag to arrive. One would have thought in any case that the airlines should be setting themselves a rather shorter time period for the arrival of the last bag on the carousel. To my mind, a period of 20 minutes seems reasonable for the arrival of the first bag.


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? It is important. This is the same question as was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne: 20 minutes from when?


From the point of time when the aircraft arrives on the stand. My Lords, the consultative committee is in a sense run as an organisation which has had a certain connection with the Greater London Council and is representative of the authorities in the area, and other user groups, ordinary users, such as the Consumers' Association, and so on. It can be said to be an independent body in the sense that it does not represent the airlines as such. They recommended in their report of 1977 that the Home Office be asked to consider increasing the number of immigration officers at Heathrow, particularly for Terminal 3 arrivals, and to look further into alternative methods of organising queues to accommodate short-stay non-British passport holders and thus improve service to all.

The recommendations of the committee were largely accepted by the British Airports Authority, which welcomed the report, and accepted some of the recommendations, although they did not agree entirely about the way in which the recommendations should be implemented. The Airline Operators Committee also welcomed the report, although they had certain specific comments to make about one of the recommendations. This was the recommendation concerning the segregation of baggage of first-class passengers and those paying a full rate of fare. Regarding this particular recommendation, the airlines found that there were insurmountable difficulties with regard to enforcing them.

Subsequently, a lot of these recommendations have been put into force. The geographical split of arriving non-EEC and United Kingdom passengers, splitting those off from those of the North American continent, has been introduced. It generally seems that the immigration facilities arc working more smoothly than they have been working in the past. Indeed, it is rare for people to be held up in immigration to the extent [...]at they find that their baggage has[...]ved in the baggage hall before they get [...]It is slightly ironic in some ways [...] the British Airports Authority [...]that having improved some of the immigration facilities, the pressure is now very much on improving the baggage handling arrangements because people are able, and I am sure we would all welcome this, to get through immigration more quickly than they were able to, do before.

I gather that on 23rd June the committee inspected the arrangements again, and they felt there was little more that could be done physically to improve the arrangements at the present time, given the constraints imposed by the airport's design. That, of course, very neatly tucks in with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that a major constraint is the fact that there is no fourth terminal at the present time and that greater latitude is needed by the Airports Authority in order to further improve the arrangements.

I think we should recognise that. Heathrow, when it was built, was built for very much smaller aircraft carrying very much less baggage than is being carried today, and it is having to function with larger aircraft carrying larger amounts of baggage than in fact had to be carried in the past. Therefore, this inevitably creates problems. I certainly feel that anything which can be done to improve the arrangements at Heathrow to enable there to be better handling of baggage is something which should be supported; but one wonders at this point of time what further inquiry is likely to bring forth.

A number of noble Lords have made very valid complaints. The noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Douglas of Barloch, made particular complaints, but in fact they were not so much about the handling of baggage but about the arrangements for transportation from Heathrow to Central London.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me to intervene, surely the handling of the passengers is even more important than the handling of the baggage. I am complaining, as other noble Lords have done, about the complete mishandling of passengers, which makes them all very angry.


My Lords, I entirely accept what the noble Lord says, but the debate that has been initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, this afternoon is in respect of an independent inquiry into the arrangements for the handling of the arrival passengers' luggage at Heathrow Airport; and this is what we are debating now. I have entire sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and I am sure that this is something which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, will wish to take up —indeed, we will all wish to take it up—with the British Airports Authority and British Airways, to exert pressure to see that this particular service from the airport to the West London air terminal is reintroduced, so that the noble Lord, Lord Stratchclyde, can be with us 20 minutes earlier on a Monday afternoon. That is something I am sure we would all support. But what we are actually talking about is the question of baggage and, as I said earlier in supporting what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, I believe it is very important that this must be adequately handled, or else people will do as the noble Earl, Lord Amherst, has suggested—they will overfly to Paris or to Amsterdam and cut out London.

I do not myself want to talk about all the problems involved or else I might fall into the trap I had almost accused the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, of falling into: that is, of talking about matters which are not on the Order Paper this afternoon. But I feel that various conference organisers, for example, have been feeling in the last year or so that they want to be fairly well assured that if they do decide to come here at a certain point in time they will not be hit by these problems in these sort of areas, so causing their conference not to function smoothly. That side of the matter is very important and we should try to ensure that it works smoothly.

What I am not entirely convinced of as yet—and no speaker so far today has come out with any particular ideas—is how the baggage handling is going to be improved, given the present constraints at Heathrow. I very much hope that the noble Lord will take to heart everything that has been said and, with his very much greater experience of this industry, that he himself will have some ideas as to how we could produce a radical improvement at Heathrow. Perhaps I could say in closing that sometimes when one goes to the smallest airport in the world in fact one's baggage is handled most quickly. Certainly I remember that 18 months ago when I went to Mauritius, one had hardly got out of the plane when all the luggage was already on the runway, and that was as far as it had to go.

6.6 p.m.


My Lords, I shall need the divine protection that was afforded to Daniel in the den tonight if I am to get away with my skin, but I will do my best! I think we all recognise the importance of the subject which the noble Lord has raised this evening. With his great experience of aviation matters, both within government and as the first chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, he will know that the handling of baggage at Heathrow is not primarily the responsibility of the Government but is a matter for the day-to-day management, first, of the airlines but also of the British Airports Authority. Nevertheless, he has constructed his Question in such way as to enable the House to have this useful short debate on it and I congratulate him upon doing so.

While it is the case that the Government have no direct responsibility, we are concerned about baggage handling for two reasons. First, we are involved, as a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, with that organisation's work in improving the movement between countries of aircraft, passengers and cargo. Within the industry, this is described as " facilitation " and baggage-handling is one of the areas of particular importance. ICAO held a major conference about facilitation in April this year, in which the United Kingdom took an active role. Our delegation comprised representatives from the Department of Trade, Customs and Excise and the Immigration Service and they were supported by advisers from our airlines and the airport authorities. We believe that this was useful in seeking to improve the handling of aircraft, passengers and cargo at our airports. But, apart from our support for the efforts of ICAO to improve air transport facilitation throughout the world, the Government are concerned also with facilitation generally, and baggage handling specifically, from the standpoint of airport planning.

The House will understand the need to use as fully and as efficiently as possible the airport resources available to us. This requires, among other things, the movement of passengers as rapidly as possible through the passenger terminals at our airports. To assist this process, the objective should be, wherever possible, the elimination of bottlenecks, whether they be in baggage handling, at the Immigration Control or at the Customs check. Against the background of the work which is now proceeding on future airport capacity for the London area, our debate today is again particularly apposite.

I visited Heathrow recently to see the situation for myself and to discuss the problems with the British Airports Authority and the chairman of the Airline Operators' Committee. I was able to gain an all-round impression of the way the baggage-handling system at the airport works and to clarify what I know is a matter of some confusion for many people—namely, where the responsibility lies for the handling of passengers' baggage at airports. At Heathrow, as at many other airports throughout the world, the task is split betweeen the airlines and the airport authority. The British Airports Authority is responsible for allocating aircraft stands, which can make a difference in the time taken for passengers and baggage to reach the passenger terminal. The BAA also provides and maintains the necessary equipment such as conveyors and mechanised sorting devices within the terminal buildings. But the responsibility for the handling of baggage rests with the airlines. The sorting of baggage, its transfer to and from the aircraft, and the loading and unloading of aircraft are all undertaken by airline staff. The airlines also provide the vehicles and equipment necessary to transport baggage between the terminal and the aircraft.

The airlines are constantly seeking ways of improving their performance in the reclaim of passengers' baggage. British Airways, for example, publishes regular statistics of the time lapse between the arrival of aircraft on the stand and the delivery of baggage to the terminal building. In addition, the BAA has undertaken the monitoring of the baggage delivery performance of all airlines since 1975. Baggage handling working groups have been set up to deal with particular problems, and the BAA is in constant touch with the airlines to find ways in which baggage handling may be improved. I am advised that there is a monthly review of progress.

At Heathrow the standard time for the delivery of baggage from the aircraft to the terminal is, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, said, 20 minutes. During the period of heaviest traffic, from August to October 1978, when there was a 21 per cent. increase in the number of flights as compared with the same period a year earlier, baggage handling performance nevertheless improved slightly. The baggage from nearly half the flights was delivered in less than the standard time and three-quarters was delivered by the standard time. Within 10 minutes of the standard time—that is, within half an hour of the arrival of the aircraft—94 per cent. of baggage was delivered, compared with 93 per cent. a year earlier. Three of the handling agents delivered 99 per cent. of their baggage within half an hour. This, as I have explained, was against the background of a substantial increase in traffic between the two years, which inevitably put a strain on all the baggage handling facilities of the airport.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, referred to his unhappy experience with British Airways. It is true that British Airways was not one of the agents which delivered 99 per cent, of its baggage within half an hour ot fhe aircraft arriving. British Airways is conscious of the need to improve its performance, and it is not my purpose to answer for, or excuse, British Airways this evening. However, to put the matter in perspective, I would just observe that British Airways handles many of the smaller airlines at Heathrow, in addition to its own services. Indeed, in the period August to October 1978, British Airways handled nearly 75 per cent. of the flights at Heathrow; in Terminal 1, 98 per cent. of the baggage on its domestic flights and 94 per cent, on its international services was delivered within 10 minutes of the standard time; compared with a year earlier, British Airways handling in Terminal 2 achieved the biggest improvement of any handling agent at the airport; and in Terminal 3 the airline also achieved a useful improvement in its performance.

I quote these figures only by way of illustration, because there can be no grounds for complacency. A passenger opinion survey conducted at Heathrow last September found that there was a balance of opinion in favour of the airport, and over half those questioned considered that Heathrow gave a smart and bright impression and thought it friendly and relaxing. However, I have to tell your Lordships that baggage handling was a principal source of complaint.

It is often suggested that baggage handling should be organised under a single authority, be it the airline, the airport authority or an independent agent. As your Lordships will know, at many American airports the largest airlines have their own terminals. This certainly has its attractions, but it depends upon a generous supply of land for separate airline terminals which is simply not available at Heathrow. Moreover, the American system is designed around domestic air transport, since international flights are only a small proportion of the total traffic. This greatly simplifies the task, since the arrangements for customs and immigration do not have a major influence on the layout and organisation of the airport. The reverse, of course, is the case at Heathrow, with its heavy preponderance of international traffic. Where US airports do have a major element of international traffic, they are, I am afraid, subject to criticism at least as severe as that directed at Heathrow. Another solution sometimes proposed is to have all the handling done by the airport authority. This is not a solution which normally commends itself to the airlines. Their business depends upon the service that they can give to their passengers, and they are understandably reluctant, particularly in so sensitive an area as baggage handling, to abrogate this responsibility to the airport authority.

Perhaps I may now turn to some of the points that have been made this evening. As for the specific delay raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, when he opened this debate, I will certainly take that up with British Airways and see whether there is an explanation, if not an excuse, that can be given to the noble Lord for what certainly sounded to be unsatisfactory performance. The noble Lord suggested that there ought to be at least an apology for delay when it occurs, and perhaps some explanation. I think that that is certainly right. When I visited Heathrow a week or so ago to prepare myself to answer this Question, I was shown the facilities that the BAA have in each baggage hall. I can tell the noble Lord that there are BAA officials who arc there all the time monitoring the situation and that, in most cases, they have closed circuit television to monitor the arrival of baggage at each of the carrousels.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, also referred to the " cloakroom system ", as I think he called it, which is used in aircraft of other airlines away from the United Kingdom. I think that that sounds an excellent idea which I shall certainly draw to the attention of British Airways. But it occurs to me that there may be some security implications, in that every bit of baggage which is carried on to the aircraft, as distinct from being put into the hold of the aircraft, has to he searched in order to make sure that it does not contain any weapon or other device which could be used in a hijacking attempt. But I do not want to shoot down the idea at this stage without further examination.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burton, and others referred to the question of trolleys and help for the aged and infirm. The BAA makes a sustained effort to provide sufficient self-service trolleys at the places where they are needed. I am told that 4,000 are in service and 2,000 of these are in Terminal 3. In addition, there are nearly 400 porters at the airport, of whom about 100 are on duty at peak times. The porters, who are employed as ordinary members of the staff and allowed to accept (but not solicit) tips, have orders to give priority to the elderly and infirm and group tours. The rapid clearance of groups benefits independent travellers. Travellers departing by Underground are expected to use trolleys and can take them as far as the ticket barrier at the top of an escalator, whence they are taken back to the terminal by BAA staff. When I visited Heathrow recently, I made a special point of travelling by the Tube. I found it convenient, speedy and comfortable and my impressions would seem to be borne out by the many of those who use it, but not, I fear, by some of your Lordships who perhaps have not yet had the chance to try it.


My Lords, how much baggage did the noble Lord have?


My Lords, I agree that the Tube is not the best form of transport for anyone with a large quantity of baggage. But, all the same, as I have said, baggage trolleys can be taken right to the barrier of the Tube and it is then just a very short walk on to the train itself. We must, however, recognise—


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? Nobody has disputed the value of the Underground for people without baggage. What we are trying very hard to get authority to see, and to get both Governments to see, is that there are two ends of the Tube. There is the one where you get on, where you have to leave your trolley and get your baggage past the barrier. Then there is not a single London Tube with an exit at street level for passengers with their baggage.


Yes, my Lords. I agree that there is a problem for passengers with baggage on the Tube. The Tube is certainly not the best method of travel for those who are elderly or infirm, or who have a large quantity of baggage. But I shall come to the question of buses in a moment. Passengers for Central London, who are elderly or infirm or who have more baggage than they can carry on the Tube, are expected to use the British Airways bus service to the Victoria terminal, and I understand that they would be advised to that effect by the porters. I think the noble Lord, Lord Douglas, would confirm that. However, I shall come back to the buses in a little more detail.

The noble Earl, Lord Amherst—I should like to deal with these small points, because the buses are rather important—referred to the need for further terminal capacity at Heathrow. As the House knows, the British Airports Authority has plans to build a fourth passenger terminal at Heathrow. It was the subject of a public inquiry last year. That was decided upon by the last Administration. My right honourable friends received the inspector's report towards the end of May. This is now being considered and they hope to announce their decision and to publish the report very shortly.

The noble Earl, Lord Amherst, also referred to the transfer of services from Heathrow to Gatwick. That would certainly help to relieve some of the congestion at Heathrow. There is no doubt that some redistribution of traffic among the London airports is essential and that traffic will have to be transferred to Gatwick since Heathrow will be unable to accommodate the demand. I can say that my right honourable friend is presently considering the next steps in the development of this policy.

To come to the question of buses, the noble Baroness, Lady Burton of Coventry, asked me specifically about the need for bus services from the centre of cities generally to airports and specifically in the case of London and Heathrow. I agree that unless there is a train service with adequate accommodation for luggage, a bus service is essential. I have no particularly strong views as to who should run that service, but clearly there is something to be said for the airlines themselves doing so. They can synchronise the buses with their flights and make special arrangements when flights are delayed, but we should recognise that a bus service is part of the competitive package which airlines offer. If they consider that they will attract additional passengers by offering check-in of luggage at the town centre, coupled with the bus service, then no doubt they will do so, and we should welcome that. That is why there are still three airline bus services from Central London. If there are still passengers who cannot conveniently use the existing bus services in sufficient numbers to support a viable service for passengers from various airlines, then I would expect the public transport authorities to identify the need and be prepared to do something about it. I am sure that it is not right for subsidised bus services to be provided for airline passengers for any of the organisations concerned with air transport. May I say in parenthesis that when the service from the West London Terminal Air was withdrawn recently, it was losing something like £900,000 a year, which your Lordships will agree is a very substantial sum.

We all recognise the problem of baggage handling—and the airlines and the airport authority do as much as anybody. Some progress is being made with containerisation, which allows all the bags for one destination to be removed from the aircraft in a few moments. This is a major advance, but the question is: what more can be done, both in the interests of the passenger and the more efficient operation of the airport? My noble friend has suggested an independent inquiry.

There was such an inquiry in 1972 during the last Conservative Administration. This inquiry was conducted by the Metra consulting group who worked under the guidance of a steering committee of officials. Their report—which cost £40,000, no less—contained proposals designed to reduce the time passengers and their baggage spent at Heathrow. It dealt also with wider matters such as checking-in systems, the handling of transfer passengers and immigration procedures, but by far the greatest effort was devoted to baggage handling.

Metra recommended that effort should be concentrated on the unloading of the aircraft and that there should be much more and better equipment. They also suggested a substantial increase in manpower and ways in which the organisation and motivation of the manpower might be improved. These proposals were largely adopted. In 1977 there was a further study—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede—by the Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee, this time dealing solely with baggage handling. They, too, made a number of detailed suggestions: better monitoring arrangements, improvements to baggage reclaim units, better road access, improved deployment of trucks and more consultation on day-to-day problems between the airport and the airlines. These proposals, too, were substantially adopted and the monitoring and consultation arrangements, to which referred earlier, continue in force.

I mention these matters to remind the House that this whole difficult subject has been considered carefully in the past and that the problem areas, while easy to identify, are less easy to resolve. The essential conclusion to emerge from these earlier studies is that there is no dramatic initiative which can be taken to effect an immediate improvement. The problem needs day-to-day attention and constant effort to improve performance. While, then, I consider this to be essentially a managerial problem for the airlines and the airport authority, I believe that there is also room for independent criticism and guidance. This is a role which is already filled by the on-going work of the Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee and by the Air Transport Users' Committee. I do not have the direct knowledge of these committees available to the noble Lord. Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burton, but I believe the relationship between the committees and the airport and airline managements to be a stimulating and constructive one. We should consider very carefully before interposing a further body which is hound to overlap with their activities.

This is, as I have said, an important issue but it is a matter for the day-to-day management of the airlines and the airport authority. I do not believe that Government intervention could assist and I am hound to say, in view of past studies and the attention which is given to baggage handling within the industry, that I remain unconvinced of the need to appoint yet another body to inquire into this subject.


My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, I wonder whether he would consider this. Personally, I have sympathy with his doubts about another body, but will my noble friend give consideration to selecting an experienced individual, such as Sir Peter Masefield, who, given a small staff, could take a quick and independent view of this system? My noble friend knows as well as I do that when one is running a system, everybody becomes wedded to it and a little conservative. Sometimes the wholly independent judgment of somebody with experience—and I have suggested, off-the-cuff, Sir Peter Masefield—can throw up possible improvements.


My Lords, no one is a greater admirer of Sir Peter Masefield than I. However, I should have thought that the motivation for airlines, particularly in this matter, to achieve an improvement in their performance must be quite powerful. I doubt whether any other body, however expert and famous, is likely to provide any suggestions which are any more likely to achieve success than those which are available already to airlines. However, as I have said, the Government will certainly keep their eye on the situation. If things do not improve—or, worse still, if they decline further than they already have—we shall certainly want to have another look at the matter.

As I have said, I have no doubt that what has been said and the suggestions which have been made will be considered fully and carefully by the airlines, the British Airports Authority, the independent—I emphasise that word—Heathrow Airport Consultative Committee and, not least, by the Air Transport Users' Committee, upon which the noble Baroness serves with such distinction.

Within Government there is a strong commitment to the welfare and efficiency of air transport, which is an industry in which our country continues to hold a place among world leaders. We know that foreign tourists will bring in about 3 billion pounds sterling of foreign currency this year, many of them travelling by air, and that some 15 per cent. by value of the country's trade is now carried by air. The best immediate contribution which the Government can make is by encouraging a greater use of Gatwick—and baggage handling times there are of course distinctly better than at Heathrow—and by removing as soon as possible the uncertainties surrounding the question of airports capacity for the London area.

We are pledged to less Government rather than more and, where intervention remains appropriate, we shall not hesitate to take the necessary action. For the moment, however, we are not convinced that this is an appropriate case.