HL Deb 01 July 1988 vol 498 cc1829-33

11.21 a.m.

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are concerned about the congestion of air space over London and what measures they are taking for the convenience and safety of air passengers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords the Government are indeed concerned at the pressure that the continued increase in demand for air travel is placing on UK air space especially in the London terminal manoeuvring area. The Civil Aviation Authority, which is responsible jointly with the Ministry of Defence for planning and provision of air traffic services, is working on an assessment of air space capacity and options for dealing with expected demand, During peak periods the UK, along with other European countries, has introduced an air traffic flow management system to ensure that each air traffic control centre can operate safely.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for indicating what measures are now being taken, but is he aware that delays in take-off from airports in the London area are now becoming the rule rather than the exception? These delays mean that passengers are required to sit in often fully laden planes for anything up to half an hour or more, sometimes on journeys which themselves take only 40 minutes. That is totally disrupting for the individual programmes of people. Is it not possible for some short-term measures to be taken while these longer-term investigations are being undertaken?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I should first like to emphasise that not all the fault lies on our side. There are delays in the rest of Europe. Many of the delays recently experienced have been as a result of problems elsewhere in Europe.

As regards short-term measures, obviously if there is anything that can be done in the short term to alleviate the problem it will be done. I shall be raising the issue with Eurocontrol next week when there is a possibility that something might be done.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is not the pressure on air space over South-East England very much accentuated by the shortage of runways, with the consequent necessity for aircraft to spend a considerable time in a stack? Can my noble friend say what the Government are doing about that?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, the Government have asked officials to collaborate with the CAA and BAA in reviewing the forecast for air traffic demand in the South-East and the capacity required to meet it. I draw the attention of my noble friend to the evidence given by the CAA recently to a Commons Select Committee. It was made clear that it is air space and not runways that is the real constraint on the growth of air traffic in the South-East and that it will remain so for some time.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, would it not make sense if the Government were now to assist Manchester in its efforts to attract a larger increase in international flights, especially from the American continent, which would relieve Heathrow and Gatwick of some of the tremendous pressures they are experiencing? Can the Minister give any indication of whether the Government will consider Manchester's case sympathetically as there does not appear to be much progress in that direction at present?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we have done all that we can to assist Manchester to expand rapidly over the past few years. As regards US routes. we eventually persuaded the American Government to come to the negotiating table earlier this year. The negotiations were not successful but we very much hope that we shall be able to meet the Americans again before the beginning of the next season. As we have stated repeatedly, we must ask for something in return. We are not prepared to give valuable traffic rights away for nothing.

Lord Harvey of Prestbury

My Lords, can my noble friend say when Stansted will be capable of accepting additional traffic?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the new terminal at Stansted and the rail link are expected to open in 1991 when that airport will be able to handle 8 million passengers a year.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Lord has been busy on other matters, but has he yet had a chance to read the document published by the CAA on 28th June? In its review of licensing policies it recognises that there are terrible constraints on air space capacity. On page 5 the review states: In the next few years airport and air space constraints are likely to intensify. Such constraints could limit both the ability of airlines to compete and the necessity for them to do so". If the noble Lord is able to consider that document in the near future, will he have consultations with the CAA on the problem of runway capacity and this important issue of the shortage of safe air space?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Yes, my Lords. As I said, we are considering that with the CAA. The new statement of licensing policy issued by the CAA was made after lengthy consultation and the review is the result of that consultation.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the evidence given by the CAA. Will he deal with the point which I put to him on my earlier question which he has not yet answered as to whether he is aware that the shortage of air space, which admittedly is the immediate problem, is accentuated by the shortage of runways?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the point I sought to make was that the present shortage is one of air space and not of runways. Even if another runway was built in the South-East there would not be the air space capacity to cope with it.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, would it not help in a small way if more use by international flights was made of the provincial airports? Is it not the case at the moment that travel agents tend to tell travellers from outside London that the best flights are through London? In that respect, can the noble Lord give the House some indication of the future of Prestwick?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as regards provincial airports, except for Prestwick they have all enjoyed an extremely high growth rate over the past few years. If I recall correctly, Birmingham is up by about 25 per cent. and Manchester by about 14 per cent. As regards Prestwick and its role as a gateway to the United States, that matter is due to be reported on next year when the future should become clearer.

Lord Strathcarron

My Lords, I should like to declare an interest as chairman of Kent International Airport, which may be better known to your Lordships as Manston. Is my noble friend aware that Kent International has a 10,000 foot runway which is partly for the use of NATO as an emergency field? Brand new passenger terminal buildings are being erected and will be in operation next year. Therefore, the airport will not only ease the congestion of airport space in the South-East but will also reduce the high rate of unemployment in the Thanet area.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am certain that Manston will have a valuable role to play, but being in the South-East it will of course be subject to some of the air space constraints in that area.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a considerable amount of public disquiet arising from the reports which come almost daily about near misses? That disquiet has been reflected in the supplementary questions from noble Lords on all sides of the House. Will the noble Lord discuss with his right honourable friend the possibility of a government study and a White Paper, or a Green Paper, which could be debated in Parliament?

There are claims—one was made by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond—for Prestwick, which is rather a long way away in terms of getting to the South-East of England. There are claims of course for other airports which I shall not mention this morning. However, will the noble Lord be good enough to press the Minister responsible for these matters to publish a document which will enable Parliament and the country to know exactly where we stand about these possible dangers?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as regards the dangers the number of air misses has fallen sharply over the past few years. In 1977 there were 45 aircraft involved in risk-bearing air misses; in 1986 there were just 16. Although we have not had the final figures for 1987, I understand that they are no worse. That is during a time when the number of flights has risen very considerably. As regards the policy of the Government and whether we need a new White Paper. I shall draw the remarks of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition to the attention of my right honourable friend. Broadly speaking, our policy remains that set down in the White Paper of 1985 which is not that long ago.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to draw to the attention of the Civil Aviation Authority and of his right honourable friend the comments made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter? It seems fairly obvious that lack of runway space exacerbates the air space problem. If a large number of aircraft are in stack, surely that situation would be relieved by the provision of more runways.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I shall draw those remarks to the attention of the Civil Aviation Authority. However, the problem is not as simple as that. As 1 said, the CAA says that at the present time it is a shortage of air space and not a shortage of runways which is causing the problem. By the mid-1990s we shall have in place the new central control function which is being installed by National Air Traffic Services. When it is installed that will result in a 30 per cent. increase in air space capacity in the South-East area which will help considerably.

Lord Airedale

My Lords, what is the difference between a near miss and a near hit?