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Luqa Airport, Malta

Volume 462: debated on Tuesday 1 March 1949

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Motion made and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

10.11 p.m.

I must apologise both to the House and to the Parliamentary Secretary for making one more speech and asking the hon. Member to answer once more, but there is a certain convenience in these various civil aviation problems all coming together in the course of one evening and I was very anxious, in the interests of the people of Malta, not to postpone discussion of this vital topic. As the Parliamentary Secretary has been in Malta fairly recently we shall welcome any information he can give us.

I want to raise the question of the abandonment by B.O.A.C. of Malta as a staging post in their main world routes. At the end of December B.O.A.C. ended their night stop at Luqa airport, Malta, and transferred, instead, to the former Italian territory at Castel Benito. It is said that at the time, though I must confess I have not seen this myself in print, some spokesman for B.O.A.C. announced that B.O.A.C. had nothing to do with Europe, which was the responsibility of B.E.A. But very shortly afterwards we find that B.O.A.C. stated that it was important to serve Rome, which is a vital link in our European communications.

Whether this is true or not, B.O.A.C. are now heirs to the old all-red route of Imperial Airways. It is our view that this is a case concerning our imperial interests in which the Minister should interfere. The same Minister, let us remember, does not hesitate to interfere in other, and to us far less important, subjects. The result of this transfer will be that, in future, aeroplanes bound from London to Johannesburg, Delhi, Calcutta, Dar-es-Salaam, Accra, Nairobi and Sydney will all stop at Castel Benito. They will also see there five services a week from London to Cairo. Malta, on the other hand, will see, if she is lucky, one service a week passing through on the way to Colombo, one to Abadan and the oilfields of Persia and once a fortnight a plane bound for Damascus, apart altogether, that is, from the small feeder service between Rome and Malta which B.E.A. are now going to run.

I think the House should get quite clear what this change means to Malta. No one can deny that it reduces the importance of Malta. The then Minister of Civil Aviation, at the end of Malta's long siege, went to the island and spoke of the proud record of the island which he said would never be forgotten. He told the people, "It is certain Malta will have a place of importance in Empire air route planning." It means, again, the end of the all-red route. It means the abandonment of the project to make Malta our chief air junction in the Mediterranean, with all the possibilities that may mean in future years. It means the abandonment also of the project to make Malta the principal staging post for our communications. For the island itself it will have obvious and painful consequences. It is bound to lead to more unemployment, which is already very bad. Last week in the Colonial Supplementary Estimates we voted hundreds of thousands of pounds for food subsidies in Malta, in the belief that this was the last year when we should be called upon to help what is a largely self-governing Colony. It means the dispersal of trained and potential technicians. It means that the 23,000 passengers a year who used to land in Malta and spend money there will not now go to Malta. It means that the money paid to the staffs in Malta will stop—quite considerable money; £16,000 a year to the United Kingdom staff of B.O.A.C. and £7,000 a year to the Maltese staff. It means that all this money will be transferred to Castel Benito, which, we are now told, is already costing us more than £320,000 a year.

It would not be so bad if any very, coherent and consistent reason had been given for this change, but I am sorry to say that the reasons given have been very obscure, if not a trifle dishonest. The Minister said some weeks ago that the reason was that Luqa was unsuitable for the landing of Yorks. We pointed out to him that the Royal Air Force regularly landed Yorks at Luqa. Skyways, the most successful private corporation, land their Yorks there, and we asked why it should then be impossible for B.O.A.C. pilots to land there. Now we are told that that is not the reason.

I understand that a high officer of B.O.A.C. said lately that even if the airport were ideal for the landing of fourengined machines the decision to leave Malta would have to stay. If this is so, then I think it is not unfair to say that the House was misled when we were told at Question time that the reason for going was that Malta was unsuitable for the landing of Yorks. If, indeed, the airport is not suitable, it is a British responsibility, for much damage was done to the aerodrome in the war, and we have the Colonial Development Fund, which exists for improvements of this kind. But there is not much good in improving the aerodrome in order to help B.O.A.C. if B.O.A.C. is to go even if the aerodrome is improved and is proved safe for the landing of Yorks.

As the House knew shortly afterwards, there was a further and what seemed to some of us a sinister reason for this move. On 26th January the Parliamentary Secretary himself told me in the House that B.O.A.C. was not to stay long in Castel Benito but would move almost immediately to Rome. I then suggested that the reason, perhaps, why it did not transfer at once from Malta to Rome, but had a half-way stopping place at Castel Benito, was that it might be a little difficult to reconcile the people of Malta to seeing their stopping place changed for Rome, from which they had been so steadily bombed during the war, and so B.O.A.C. was choosing instead to disguise its true intentions by moving for a short while to Castel Benito, and then on to Rome. The Minister indignantly denied this insinuation, but I am still in the dark as to why it is not true. Now we do look for some explanation from the hon. Gentleman. Napoleon once said he would rather see the English on the heights of Montmartre than in Malta, and Hitler knew the importance of Malta in the last war. It looks as though it has been left to our monopoly Corporation and our Socialist Government not to realise its importance.

10.19 p.m.

I also apologise for speaking a second time tonight, but this is a question in which I have had an interest in a double capacity, and as a frequent traveller to Malta. The reason originally given us for the abandonment of Malta was safety. I would agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) that there is good evidence of the contrary and the evidence of my own eyes, in that Luqa airport has been regularly used by four-engined aircraft of the Royal Air Force and other operators. It may well be, of course, that Royal Air Force crews prefer to spend their leave in Malta rather than in Castel Benito. I was slightly puzzled to know on what the passengers would spend their money when they got to Castel Benito. I myself never found anything to spend money on there.

In view of what was said of the feelings of the Maltese in regard to Rome, I should like to put this question which has puzzled me. Is Castel Benito named after Benito Mussolini? I have not been able to find out myself. If it is, I would suggest that the Parliamentary Secretary should pass on the fact to the Secretary of State for War, and, while the territory is under British administration, get the name changed, because if it is named after the late and unlamented Benito Mussolini, it would offend me, and I am sure it would offend the Maltese.

To return to the question of Luqa there are, I think, good commercial and sentimental reasons why it should be a stopping place on our routes. Malta is not a small out-of-the-way place. It has a population of 250,000, and it is one of the most thickly-populated places in the world. Before long, there will only be standing-up room on the island, if the present increase of population continues. There is considerable traffic to be picked up in Malta, especially as the desire for emigration is very strong.

I suggest that on commercial grounds alone there are good reasons for a stopping place at Malta. The commercial reasons are strongly reinforced by sentimental reasons which, I am sure, no one in the House would desire to underestimate. We have imperial responsibilities to fulfil, especially to Malta, which has played so gallant a part in the history of the British Commonwealth. Rome will be adequately served by B.E.A., and we have the Anglo-Italian airline which could pick up travellers in Rome and connect them with the main British routes. For B.O.A.C. to make Luqa a stopping place is a matter on which the Minister of Civil Aviation could fitly give a direction to B.O.A.C., if my contention is correct that the Minister has power to give a direction that a service shall be run to a particular place.

10.23 p.m.

I do not know how the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) expects to get it both ways. For a considerable part of an earlier speech today he was quite wrongly criticising my right hon. Friend for an alleged interference with the Corporations in carrying out their jobs. One of the main burdens of his speech was that the Corporations could only operate as transport concerns if they were allowed to carry on their commercial activities as commercial organisations without any Ministerial interference. Now, in this Adjournment Debate, he is asking the Minister to use Ministerial interference against commercial operations of the Corporations. We ought to know where we stand. Either the Minister is not required to interfere or the Minister is required to interfere.

So far as Malta is concerned, it is, first of all, a question of commercial operations. The move to Castel Benito was made in order to secure dual operation and maintenance at that one airport on routes going to West Africa and the East. The only contributory factor was that the operation of the York, particularly at night, was difficult in Malta. As the hon. Gentleman rightly asked, if it is good enough for the R.A.F. why is it not good enough for B.O.A.C. Again, the Opposition cannot have it both ways. For a long period today they have been telling us that the R.A.F. takes risks and the fellow in the R.A.F. is not the right type to operate an airline, as that is a commercial job. I do say, quite seriously, that what an R.A.F. officer in charge of an R.A.F. machine does in the daytime is totally different from that which a B.O.A.C. airline pilot does coming into an airport at night time, when he is responsible for 15 or 20 fare-paying passengers behind him.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman particularly as there is so little time, but I must refer him back to what he said in the House on 17th November, 1948, which is completely at variance with what he is now saying. He then said:

"The routing of Yorks through Castel Benito is dictated solely by technical considerations arising from the opinion of British Overseas Airways Corporation that Luqa is unsatisfactory for civil operators with Yorks."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1948; Vol. 458, c. 343]
That is, arising solely from that consideration. He now says that is an incidental and not the main consideration.

Perhaps the expression "arising solely" is a little over-definite, but it is a fact that B.O.A.C. pilots have said, and still say, that operation at night makes it difficult. In any case, this is only a temporary transfer, because the intention has always been to go through Rome. Rome is one of the best traffic centres in Europe, and if B.O.A.C. is to operate as a commercial airline it must go where the traffic is offering, and it is at Rome that the traffic offers.

The requirements of Malta will be met. They are better met today than they ever have been before. But that is not to say there could not be an improvement, and there will be an improvement if the needs of Malta require it. I think the hon. Gentleman himself traced, perhaps incidentally, what the problem really is. It is not a question of B.O.A.C. calling at Malta. It is a question of B.O.A.C. aircraft night-stopping at Malta. Well, we are not going to night-stop at Malta. A development has been that aircraft overfly or go through and the result is that certain hotel proprietors who used to get night-stopping passengers will now miss them. One can appreciate their difficulty and disappointment but we do not operate airlines for the benefit of hotel proprietors at any given place on a route. One operates an airline on a commercial basis for the transport services it runs.

We will give Malta the services it requires. Both my noble Friend and myself have been to Malta; we have had discussions with the Prime Minister and other Ministers in Malta; we have had discussions with the Governor and the Air Officer Commanding. All are completely in the picture; all are entirely satisfied with the present position. I would not say that everyone in Malta was entirely satisfied, but the main Ministers in the Maltese Government, the Governor, and the R.A.F. are entirely satisfied with the present position.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes past Ten o'Clock.