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Airports: Heathrow

Volume 724: debated on Monday 31 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the impact on the economy of delays and cancellations at London Heathrow Airport in December 2010.

My Lords, the department is considering the economic impact of the delays and cancellations at London Heathrow Airport in December. The number of terminal passengers travelling through Heathrow in December 2010 was down by around 10 per cent compared with 2009, mainly due to severe weather disruption. As a result some UK firms might have lost revenue, although there is currently no basis for quantifying this. In some cases firms might have mitigated impacts, for example through video conferencing.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The Spanish owners of Heathrow borrowed the money to buy it, thus leaving themselves too impoverished to invest in the infrastructure necessary for a reliable service to passengers in difficult weather conditions. This is confirmed by the Financial Times of 21 December. Do the Government think that so many of our key national institutions should be available to anyone, from anywhere, who can borrow the money to buy them?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about the importance of transport infrastructure to our economy. That is why we are continuing to invest in our infrastructure despite the economic situation. As for the ownership of BAA, there was an agreement with airlines about the level of residence to be provided this winter. However, 16 centimetres of snow in one hour far exceeded the agreed provision. I am not sure that ownership is relevant.

I have to apologise to the House, as last week I said that Heathrow had 24 aircraft stands with snowbound aircraft on them. I should have said that there were 200 such stands.

My Lords, given the economic and social importance of Heathrow, and indeed of Gatwick, after further consideration will my noble friend invite the Government to commission an independent inquiry into the resources and processes at Heathrow and Gatwick for handling snow and ice compared with those at New York and Boston, and then agree to publish the result?

My Lords, I listened with great care to what the noble Lord said today and last week. The Civil Aviation Authority is taking forward work to understand more fully the impact of disruption on passengers to help to inform a decision on whether regulatory change is needed to balance the cost of disruption to passengers and business against the cost of dealing with severe weather.

My Lords, it is not relevant. Heathrow experienced 16 centimetres of snow in one hour. It does not matter who owns it; the airport will come to a stop in those circumstances.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that Heathrow was actually purchased by the Spanish company under the previous Government, so the supplementary question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Gavron, should really focus on lessons to be learnt rather than on encouraging people to think that we were responsible?

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the last Government also placed 51 per cent of the shares of National Air Traffic Services in the hands of the public through the Government? The Government are contemplating privatising NATS. Would he assure the British public that it will not fall into foreign ownership?

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a bad situation last year was made infinitely worse by the seeming inability of the airport operator and the airlines to give passengers adequate information that was not contradictory? Have the Government looked at the matter and at who should be giving information?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right; we touched on this last week as well. There are two reviews. One was commissioned by BAA. The other will come from the South East Airports taskforce. No doubt both reviews will consider that very important point and come back with suggestions on how we can avoid the problems in future.

My Lords, last week the noble Lord indicated that these reviews were taking place, but did not indicate the degree of urgency. It is 31 January and there is still plenty of winter to come. When will these reports be published and when will any action based on them be taken?

My Lords, the reports will come in due course. However, if there are any lessons to be taken on board immediately, we will listen and take action on those points.

My Lords, is it not rather ridiculous to try to turn this into an argument about public versus private? The motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh was closed for two days, yet as far as I know has not been privatised. Is not the real issue whether we will have winters like this on a regular basis, and whether we need to invest in our infrastructure—our roads, our airports and the rest—to prevent our country from looking ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world?

My noble friend is absolutely right. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked Sir John Beddington to give us some scientific data on how likely it is that we will experience such severe winters in future.

I declare an interest as the president of BALPA. Is it not obvious, without any inquiry, that there are serious disadvantages in on-stand de-icing, including leaving parking stands awash with fluid overspray that could lead to serious health and safety risks? Is there not a real lack of de-icing rigs? Will the Government make a statement about that?

My Lords, it is important to understand that there are two areas of responsibility. BAA is responsible for keeping the runways and taxiways clear, but the airlines are responsible for de-icing the aircraft. I asked about the environmental impact of the de-icing fluid, which is a glycol-based chemical. I was advised that the de-icers are intercepted and the effluent is reprocessed.