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Baa Airports: Service Standards

Volume 620: debated on Wednesday 20 December 2000

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2.51 p.m.

Whether the standard of infrastructure services provided to passengers and airlines by BAA plc (and by extension Heathrow Airport Limited) at Heathrow is satisfactory.

My Lords, the Government announced last month that we favour modifications to the current regime for economic regulation of BAA's London airports to enhance incentives for timely investment in capacity enhancement, where appropriate, and improved quality of service. The Civil Aviation Authority is taking account of this in its preparatory work towards setting the next price cap, which will apply for the five years from April 2003. The CAA will also take account of BAA's investment programme, which BAA updates annually, striking a balance between capacity enhancement, quality of service and the level of charges to users.

My Lords, I am pleased that the Minister has these issues clearly in his sights. From first-hand experience as a passenger, and having spoken to operations personnel at Heathrow—some believing that the airport functions only at 60 per cent efficiency—why must we accept major computer breakdowns, air bridges and walkways that seemingly never consistently work all at the same time, inadequate standards of baggage transfer and carousels which do not function, and, I am sorry to report, poor standards of cleanliness, for example, in the lavatories? Should government shoulder some of this blame? And is it healthy that the operator is a subsidiary of the owner of the airport?

My Lords, the quality of service is clearly part of the regulation which the CAA is looking at. During the future period of that regulation it will take into account any shortcomings on the current quality of service. Although there have been shortcomings, the quality of service at London's airports, particularly in the baggage handling area, have improved substantially and are competitive with major airports around the world, many of which are under less pressure of capacity than Heathrow.

The review of competition took into account the structure of the BAA airports. We concluded that it was unlikely that if the airports were independent they would be able to compete more vigorously for traffic than they already do. Therefore, the benefits of the quality to users and passengers would not be that obvious. We decided not to pursue the possibility of break-up of BAA, at least for the time being, and to concentrate on better regulation.

My Lords, can my noble friend ensure that BAA employs enough people, particularly in the lost property division, so that people who make oral representations by telephone are not kept waiting indefinitely for a reply on what for them is a very important issue? Can my noble friend ensure also that this matter is brought to the attention of the chairman of the BAA, because the situation is Car from satisfactory?

My Lords, while it is not really the role of government to directly indicate to the private operator, BAA, where it should employ its staff, we have set the airport, and the aviation industry in general, a 10 point challenge about service to the travelling public. That includes better information, better care for delayed passengers, reducing the number of lost bags, improving the levels of compensation and speeding up check-in and baggage collection. There are a number of areas of passenger service which the Government have already asked the airports to address. That is in addition to the CAA's review of the regulatory framework.

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend, when looking at the infrastructure, will examine the provision at Heathrow and other major airports of adequate medical support for passengers arriving on incoming flights who find themselves in difficulty. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is in her place because she chaired an excellent report on health in aircraft. I was told at Heathrow, in connection with a matter in which I was deeply involved, that the airport had access to Ashford hospital. But that is some miles away. What is needed is immediate medical attention for those who need it at the airport.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. One of the points in the 10-point challenge is to provide better information on health issues associated with flying. The points made by my noble friend about health service will be drawn to the attention of the airport operator.

My Lords, given the increasing volume of traffic at Heathrow particularly, is there not something seriously wrong with the maintenance situation where travelators, lifts and escalators are switched off for days and days and no maintenance contractor seems to move a finger to remedy the problem?

My Lords, the question of servicing, as well as providing investment in the infrastructure, is one of the matters that the CAA will have to consider in its future regulatory framework. I am aware of the kind of problem to which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, refers. I repeat that if one makes a comparison with an airport with a similar throughput Heathrow is not bad. Improvements can be made. The Government and the CAA have responsibilities to ensure that the regulatory framework achieves those improvements. However, let us not say that the entire experience of being at Heathrow airport is a disaster; it is not. It is one of the better airports in the world.