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Regional Airports

Volume 181: debated on Monday 26 November 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what measures are being taken to open up more transatlantic services from United Kingdom regional airports.

The Government recognise the importance of regional airports. An agreement was reached in June, which provided new opportunities for transatlantic services from regional airports. Official talks are to start tomorrow in Washington on the prospects for further liberalising the United Kingdom—United States aviation relationship on transatlantic services. That could open the way for any suitable United Kingdom airport to be used.

Does my hon. Friend agree that good transatlantic links can be of considerable importance in opening up regional centres such as Manchester and Birmingham for commercial and industrial development? My hon. Friend has been most successful in that so far. Will he continue with it? Will he confirm that that is not a substitute for further airport capacity in the south-east of England?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance for the regions of transatlantic services. It is thanks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that in June we managed to get the agreement that made a significant advance. We intend to build on that in the talks that start tomorrow. I understand what my hon. Friend said about additional capacity in the south-east. A report on that was published last year, which we are studying and working on.

Does the Minister agree that much of the increased congestion at Heathrow is caused by people from other parts of the United Kingdom being brought in on shuttle flights so that they can then fly on to the United States? Would not it be better and quicker if the flights went direct from places such as Manchester to the United States? Would not that avoid some of the congestion in the south-east and bring the necessary investment to the Greater Manchester area that we all want?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I should go further and say that it is important that we concentrate on developing regional airports. Much of what can be done by regional airports, such as attracting the airlines and showing that the business is there, is in their own hands. Regional airports such as Manchester have done that and I congratulate it.

Does my hon. Friend understand that regional airports will not benefit from the opening up of transatlantic or any other services unless and until they are properly privatised? Will my hon. Friend give an undertaking that the local authorities will be made to divest themselves of ownership of those regional airports, so that the airports can expand and take advantage of the opening up of air travel in the 1990s?

My hon. Friend makes a forceful point, which found sympathy with a number of my colleagues. Some regional airports have gone into private ownership. Perhaps it will surprise most hon. Members to know that one of the first was Liverpool. We welcome that and hope that others will follow that example.

What encouragement are the Government giving regional airports to develop transatlantic services? Is not it strange that British Airways, although not wanting to operate such services, invariably objects to foreign airlines doing so? Will the Minister comment on the fact that British Airways in the private sector rarely welcomes the competition that it regularly and publicly espouses? Is there any evidence that ownership of the airports has been anything other than beneficial to local authorities and poll tax payers, who have contributed to the airports?

Regional airports have grown because of the economic benefits offered by the Government. Ten years ago, regional airports were not making any money and were not providing services for their localities. The liberalisation of air services, to which the Government are committed, has led to the expansion of regional airports and we are proud of that.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that, with regard to the Washington talks, the Government's ability to resist pressures from the United States to get something for nothing will result in our airlines being able to compete fairly across the north Atlantic? Will my hon. Friend guarantee that there will be no concessions on our fifth freedom or cabotage rights this side of the Atlantic without the Americans playing the game and giving us similar rights in America? Would not the current GATT round of talks be a good forum in which the lowering of that protectionist barrier might be achieved?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I assure him that the talks that start tomorrow are designed to bring liberalisation, which will give opportunities for United Kingdom and other airlines. We are determined to give those equal opportunities and to make sure that United Kingdom airlines do not suffer or lose out in the negotiations.