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Air Tickets: Discount Sales

Volume 416: debated on Tuesday 20 January 1981

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

2.53 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a statement in amplification of the Answer given by the Lord Trefgarne on 10th December that discounted tickets supplied by scheduled airlines to retail outlets other than recognised legitimate agents are supplied in the expectation that the correct fare will be charged.

My Lords, as I think Hansard shows, my statement on that occasion has been misquoted and misunderstood. In that Answer I was only concerned to point out that many tickets are legally supplied and sold. I do not dispute that there are some agents and sub-agents, presumably in collusion with some airlines, who are selling some tickets at prices which are below the officially approved level or are in breach of the conditions attached to the particular fare. As I have said, we believe the problem would largely disappear if legitimate low fares, particularly, for example, standby fares in Europe, were accepted by our international partners and made available.

My Lords, in spite of that reply, may I first of all ask the Minister whether he is aware that I am both glad and sorry that three previous speakers have stolen my thunder but that, as a persistent nuisance. I was delighted at his promotion? I can think of nobody who deserves it more and I think the whole House agrees with me in that particular matter.

Moving on to more unpleasant affairs, may I ask him whether he is aware that my Question is founded exactly—and I have it here—on his statement which appeared in Hansard, col. 724 on 10th December; and that it is not true to say that the scheduled airlines expect these discounted fares to be correctly charged? Would he agree that there is surplus capacity on planes, that airlines want to fill it, that passengers want to travel, that the bucket shops have these tickets and that these tickets are offered at a price that the bucket shop operators can get from various travellers? The scheduled airlines know this and welcome it. Would the noble Lord look again at what he said in column 724, which is exactly as I have quoted, and would he feel able to change his mind on what he said?

My Lords, I fear not. Perhaps I should first thank the noble Baroness for the mailed fist in the velvet glove which she has offered to me at the start of her remarks. To deal with her supplementary question, I certainly agree that there is considerable economic pressure from passengers and from airlines, for different reasons, for lower air fares. We believe that in very many cases air fares ought to be lower and we are seeking to achieve that by means of negotiation where we can with our international partners. The fact of the matter is that we are at present governed by international agreements in this matter and the pressure which the noble Baroness has been bringing to bear upon me and upon my predecessor continuously in recent months is, as I understand it, to secure the breach of those international agreements; and that I cannot agree to.

My Lords, may I just insinuate the velvet glove a little further before we move on to other matters? May I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that, on the same date, 10th December, at col. 725, the Minister did tell the House that fares had to be agreed between the two Governments concerned? In fact, this is complete nonsense. May I ask the Minister whether he would suggest that the bucket shops contact these various Governments before they sell the tickets? Also, is he aware that these tickets are sold at a discount of up to 60 per cent? Does he know that I have in my hand here a bucket shop price guide issued by the Business Traveller of this month, which gives the fares available from London? I am wondering whether perhaps he would feel that this matter could be looked at again in view of the evidence I have given to him.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is mistaken to say that what I was saying was rubbish, because it is not. The fact is that—and I have made this clear to the noble Baroness before and I will make it clear to your Lordships again now because I know that many of your Lordships are interested in this matter—international fares are agreed between Governments. Authority granted to airlines of either country to operate their services is conditional upon their adhering to the terms of the permits issued; and one of those terms is the fares to be charged. If they fail deliberately to charge the agreed fares, they are in breach of the permits that have been issued to them.

The noble Baroness ought to know that this matter was one of the first that came on to my desk when I took up my post a week or so ago, and it is one which I propose to pursue with the utmost vigour.

My Lords, as one who buys bucket shop tickets and is very happy to do so at the nice fares that are charged, which enable people to travel to other parts of the world, may I ask the noble Lord what is the precise position? Is it the case then that, pending some international agreement with other countries on lower fares, the Government are happily conniving at the breaking of these regulations at home by allowing bucket shops to sell at these prices? Are the Government saying, on the one hand, that they believe in these international agreements but that, on the other hand, they cannot do anything at home to stop them being broken?

My Lords, the legal position is not clear. I must tell the noble Lord that if we had been able to secure the necessary evidence in recent months we should have instituted prosecutions. If the appropriate evidence comes before me in the months to come, I shall authorise the introduction of prosecutions.

My Lords, if it is of any comfort to the noble Lord, may I ask whether he is aware that the noble Baroness was just as strict many years ago when I was in his position and exactly the same problems arose? We did prosecute a number of people. It made not the slightest difference and it is going on now in exactly the same way as it was in 1970 and 1972.

My Lords, I might perhaps add to what my noble friend has said that there may be steps I can take which fall short of prosecution, and I shall consider what might be done.

My Lords, would my noble friend recognise that there are many travel agents who are facing serious financial problems at present and that the operations of these bucket shops seriously damage their prospects?

My Lords, I have heard that view advanced and I have no doubt that it is a just one.

My Lords, has the noble Lord any information about the profits being made by these bucket shops, which are engaged in intense competition with each other? Could not a list be published, for the benefit of the travelling public, about the relatively low charges, even if they are legitimate, for the various fares that these bucket shops charge now?

My Lords, there are of course a number of legitimate low fares—for example, standby fares on the North Atlantic—which doubtless are among those offered by the so-called bucket shops. It is also the case that a number of tickets are sold by bucket shops where the conditions that should be attached to the fare are not applied or where, blatantly, the wrong fare is applied. Those are the matters with which I am concerned.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that these so-called bucket shops are operating in the best traditions of the free enterprise that is sanctified by the party opposite?

My Lords, I am aware of that. The general pressure for lower fares is one which I accept and acknowledge, but it has to be done through the legitimate channels.