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Airports: Heathrow

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 14 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have held discussions with BAA about the case for improving conditions for travellers at Heathrow Airport.

My Lords, Ministers and officials meet regularly with BAA to discuss a wide range of issues, including proposals for development and the role of Heathrow as one of the world’s busiest airports. BAA is responsible for the operation of the airport and is currently undertaking a programme of improvements at Heathrow, including the construction of Terminal 5 and Heathrow East, which aim to improve the customer experience.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he tell us whether the Minister for Tourism has been talking to BAA about the sometimes mind-boggling queues both at check-in and security; the restrictions on baggage taken on board which are tighter than in the United States; the chaos at baggage reclaim; the broken escalators; the filthy lavatories; and, above all, according to Ryanair, the delays in flight that are worse than at other airports? Is it not time that we re-examined the conditions in which BAA operates its airports, and is it not time that we re-examined the monopoly that BAA has over our airports in order to bring an end to this national disgrace and national advertisement?

My Lords, the noble Lord describes conditions at Heathrow in terms which clearly others have experienced. We do of course have continuing discussions both at ministerial and official level with BAA as a company on precisely these issues. In fairness—I know that the noble Lord has received correspondence on this from the company—BAA has an ambitious improvement programme for Heathrow which will take us up to 2012, the year of the London Olympics. These issues are addressed in that programme.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I frequently fly from Chicago to Terminal 3 at Heathrow, and that time after time I am greeted by a broken travelator? I must confess that on Saturday it was a broken escalator, for a change. Is my noble friend further aware of the appalling impression this must make on visitors to this country whose first encounter in Britain is with a broken travelator? Will he please do whatever he can to raise the standard of maintenance on travelators and escalators?

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend has suffered distress and I will undertake to communicate directly with BAA on the issue. We want to create the best possible visitor experience when people first land in the United Kingdom, and for that reason it is to be welcomed that BAA is addressing these issues with its improvement programme for Heathrow.

My Lords, the Minister has already said that Heathrow is the busiest international airport; it also has the lowest landing charges. That is a result of the legislation under which BAA was privatised. The regulatory system means that BAA has to derive most of its money from shops and commercial development rather than airline landing fees. Will the Minister investigate, before the next regulatory review, the amount of money contributed by the airlines and the amount BAA has to get from shops, which of course reduce the space available in the airport for passengers?

My Lords, I agree that the congested nature of the terminals makes them very unsatisfactory. I repeat, BAA is a private company and operates in the way that it does. Of course it is an issue that we should keep in the forefront of our thinking; it is one that we will continue to discuss with BAA.

My Lords, relating to the earlier Question about passports, although I agree with everything that has been said about the physical condition of Heathrow, one of the greatest problems for those arriving is the time that they have to wait to get out of the airport because of the huge queues, which can go on for hours. This is not because of a shortage of space but because there are unmanned desks in the immigration area. There is something wrong with the amount of staff being deployed. What do the Government propose to do about that?

My Lords, again, I have every sympathy with the noble Baroness; I have experienced similar delays myself. It is, of course, something that we should continue to keep very much in mind. I will, as a matter of importance, write and ensure that we take up the issue.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the campaign director for Future Heathrow, campaigning to modernise and expand the airport, which is long overdue and makes the point that many of the criticisms are right. My concern is that the delays referred to by the noble Lord in his supplementary question will not be dealt with until there is extra capacity at the airport. The runways are operating at more than 98 per cent full. That is not good for Britain and certainly not good for the region I used to represent. I know it is out to consultation, but does the Minister agree that modernisation and expansion at Heathrow is in the national as well as the local interest?

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s point and have great sympathy with him. However, I repeat, massive investment is going into Heathrow. The new terminal to replace terminals 1 and 2 recently received planning permission and will begin very shortly. We should all be pleased about that. It means that by 2012 Heathrow will have the appearance of being an entirely new airport.

My Lords, the ability for business leaders and traded goods to reach anywhere in the world quickly and efficiently has long been a singular advantage for London as a world city. Will the Minister work with other colleagues in government—the Home Office, particularly, Revenue and Customs, Defra and the Department for Transport—to ensure that all understand the potential impact of business travellers’ experience of London airports on tens of thousands of UK jobs?

My Lords, that issue is not lost on the Government; it is one of the reasons why we are very keen to see Heathrow improved. The noble Baroness is right to highlight the issue. Millions of people come through Heathrow every year. I think it handles 67.7 million passengers annually, which makes it one of the most used airports—if not the most used—in the world.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London today in the Guardian newspaper? He has put himself under a self-denying ordinance not to fly currently. Does my noble friend agree that, far from encouraging people to fly by providing them with excellent new facilities, we should, on the whole, be discouraging them?

My Lords, it is a matter of personal choice. I like using the rail network, but if I am going abroad I will fly.