Skip to main content

Aviation: Open Skies

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they support the draft agreements between the European Union and the United States on open skies for air traffic.

My Lords, the Government are considering their view with regard to this agreement. It will be discussed at the European Transport Council on 22 March. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that it would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the discussion in the Council or to set out the Government’s negotiating position in detail at this time. However, I can assure him that the Government will not sign up to a deal unless they consider it to be in the overall interests of the United Kingdom to do so.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is his definition of the United Kingdom’s interest the flying public or the two airlines that currently have slots to fly to the US? Will he ensure that, whatever is agreed this week, the agreement will be much fairer and include the ability for European, including British, airlines to pick up domestic passengers in the US, as the US airlines are apparently going to be able to pick up passengers in Europe?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important contribution to this debate. The key issue is the role that the Government play in securing a balance of the full range of United Kingdom interests—passengers, airports, our wider economic interests and the interests of airlines. A range of views have been expressed by those airlines, but it is our job to do the best we can in representing all those interests to secure the best possible deal for the UK.

My Lords, I understand that the agreement would lead to an increase in transatlantic air passengers from 50 million to 76 million a year within five years. Is that acceptable in terms of global atmospheric pollution and airport pollution in the form of air noise and road congestion?

My Lords, the noble Earl needs to look at this in the round. The UK is obviously involved in a delicate negotiating position and we have to protect our commercial interests while striking an environmental balance. That is why we are involved in longer-term discussions about emissions trading and ensuring that we have sustainable airports.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, although Morocco has signed the open skies treaty with the European Union, it continues to be charged a higher rate of air passenger duty, similar to that charged to other non-EU nations that have no such agreement? Will he assure the House that this issue will be considered and that he will speak to colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Transport to ensure that we find a just and fair solution to this obvious inconsistency?

My Lords, I am sure that the position in Morocco is being considered. We have, no doubt, given it careful thought and it will play an important part in the way that we discuss these issues as the situation develops.

My Lords, why does the Minister persist in referring to an open skies agreement, when those of us who have had responsibility for transport—and I may have been the last Secretary of State to negotiate an aviation agreement with the United States—know that the US is not into open skies and is not into open skies on this proposed deal, either?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his past life; no doubt he made an important contribution to those negotiations. Open skies is a very important objective, and it is part of the Government’s bargaining position. We have to attempt to secure the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and we have to encourage our friends in the United States to ensure that the market is opened up, liberalised and made available to all those who play a part in it.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the United States has put forward a very unbalanced proposal? It is contending that there should be no entry for European airlines and it is demanding access to Heathrow. What does my noble friend now intend to do about this appalling reaction by the United States?

My Lords, I understand that there are varied and differing views on the current state of the negotiations and on what Europe sees as a viable and desirable outcome. It is important to understand the deal that is on offer. The draft deal would end the current restrictive Bermuda II agreement, which severely constrains UK/US services. For the first time, it would allow UK airlines to fly to any point in the United States, rather than to the current restricted list of destinations, and it would end all limits on frequencies and fares. It would also end the current restriction on access to Heathrow to just two UK and two US carriers and it would allow UK airlines to fly to the US from any other European member state. So the deal that is on offer, which is under discussion, takes us forward some way. The points made by my noble friend are all important elements of the continuing discussions.

My Lords, is this an agreement that the United Kingdom can opt out of or is it the sort of agreement that requires a qualified majority vote? If it does not, are the Government prepared to use their veto if the terms of the agreement do not suit airlines, airports and the British public generally?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that this is a complex procedure, but it is fair to say that decisions such as this are normally taken by consensus within the Council, and the Government will be looking to proceed on the basis of political consensus. The draft agreement has been prepared as a mixed agreement; in other words, it is an agreement to which both the Community and the individual member states are party. As the agreement is mixed, it will come into force only after it has been approved by the Community and ratified by all member states.