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Volume 795: debated on Monday 18 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“On 16 February 2019, British Midland Regional Limited, the East Midlands-based airline which operates as Flybmi, announced that it had ceased operations from that date and filed for administration. The group has surrendered its licence to operate in the UK, which means it is no longer able to operate flights. There has already been significant speculation about the reasons behind Flybmi’s failure. Ultimately, this was a commercial matter for the airline.

Flybmi operated in a very competitive industry and was exposed to wider pressures faced by the global aviation industry, such as increasing fuel prices. It is very disappointing that Flybmi has gone into administration, and we know that this will be a very difficult time for those who have lost their jobs as a result. Many of those affected are highly skilled; we are confident they will find suitable employment opportunities, and we welcome the moves by the sector to offer opportunities to those affected.

The Insolvency Service’s redundancy payments scheme is working with the administrators of Flybmi to ensure that former employees’ claims from the National Insurance Fund, which may include redundancy pay, holiday pay, arrears of pay and compensatory notice pay, are assessed as quickly as possible. With the sector ready to recruit, I hope new jobs will be found quickly.

I also recognise that this is a disruptive time for passengers, also very distressing, and the Government’s immediate priority is fully focused on supporting those affected. We are in active contact with airports, airlines and other transport providers to ensure everything possible is being done to help them. We and the Civil Aviation Authority are working closely with the travel industry to ensure this situation is managed with minimal impact to passengers. There are enough spaces on other flights for passengers to return home on other airlines, and we welcome the sector’s move to offer rescue fares for affected passengers. For example, Flybmi has codeshares across the Lufthansa Group. Passengers on these flights will be subject to EU passenger protection rules and will be provided with assistance and rerouted to their final destination.

Travel insurance and credit card bookings are worth noting here. Most passengers were business, and this will also be covered through their work. In addition, the CAA is providing detailed information for affected passengers on its website, including how people can claim back money they have spent on tickets.

The Government recognise the importance of maintaining regional connectivity, and that is why we fund a public service obligation route from Derry/Londonderry to London, which was recently extended from 1 April 2019 for a further two years, the norm for PSOs. The chief executive of Derry Council has the power to transfer the PSO contract to another airline for up to seven months to allow for a new procurement process to be conducted. Subject to due diligence, we expect the council to sign contracts and appoint an airline later this week, and we are expecting services to resume swiftly. Derry and Strabane Council will take forward that part—it is its responsibility.

All affected regional airports have been contacted and while they are disappointed, we are confident this will not cause them significant issues. A number of airlines have already indicated they will step in to replace routes previously served by Flybmi. For example, Loganair has publicly announced that it will cover routes from Aberdeen, Bristol and Newcastle.

Our priority is to protect employees, passengers and local economies. We are fully focused on supporting those affected and remain in close contact with industry and the CAA to ensure everything possible is done to assist”.

My Lords, I thank the Minster for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. Eighteen months ago this House questioned Ministers on the collapse of Monarch Airlines, and we were promised things would change—yet here we are.

The Transport Secretary has dithered and delayed for nearly a year in bringing forward new rules on airline insolvencies, so we must ask Ministers what they have been doing. Flybmi has been in difficulty for some time, so what plans did the DfT have for an airline collapse? What plans does it have, or is it putting in place, should another airline be forced into this position?

Why was the airline allowed to sell tickets only hours before entering administration? The Minister detailed some of the actions being taken to support passengers left stranded by cancellations. Do the Government have an estimate of how many UK residents have been affected?

The Minister alluded to the fact that last week the Government agreed to extend the subsidy of Flybmi’s London to Derry route. We have gone from a ferry company with no ferries to a flight path with no flights. Was the DfT aware that the airline was about to collapse when it agreed this commitment of public money? What checks did Ministers do on the airline prior to extending the commitment?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. On how we are dealing with airline insolvency in the future, we have commissioned an independent review led by Peter Bucks to review consumer protection in the event of an airline or travel company failure. It is looking at options including an orderly wind-down of an airline so that it is able to conduct and finance repatriation options without impact on the taxpayer. The review is also looking at the lessons learned from the collapse of Monarch, and will identify potential market reforms necessary to ensure that passengers are protected when an airline fails. This is a complex issue and it is an extensive report. We are expecting the report in the spring.

Initial estimates are that fewer than 1,000 affected UK-originating passengers are overseas. Many will have already made their way back; many will have been planning to stay abroad. We understand that about two-thirds of those booked to return were on code shares, and those bookings will be honoured.

On the PSO, the department and the CAA were not informed of the administration until very shortly before the directors agreed to it. To be clear, the contract for the PSO is directly with the city of Derry and Strabane council. They are the people who run that contract and it is they who will re-let it shortly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Statement. The company cited Brexit as one of the reasons for its problems. First, the fall in the value of the pound in the past two and a half years has obviously meant that people are finding it more difficult to afford holidays abroad. It mentioned the spike in fuel and carbon costs caused by our exclusion from full participation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme—we have been suspended from that until the withdrawal agreement is in place. The company said that it was unable to secure valuable flying contracts in the EU because of Brexit uncertainty.

On Saturday, we had Flybmi; today, we have the very sad news about Honda in Swindon. The trickle of job losses has become a steady flow. Today as well, we have the UK Trade Policy Observatory estimating some 750,000 job losses—that is a conservative estimated—as a result of Brexit uncertainty. What plans do the Government have to retrain people who lose their job because of Brexit uncertainty? What plans do they have to find new jobs for them? Have they estimated the total cost to our economy of retraining people and providing them with benefits while they are unemployed?

Both the UK and the EU have made it very clear that we want flights to continue after Brexit. We and the EU are taking the necessary actions to ensure that this will be the case in the event of no deal. This sad event is a commercial matter for the airline in a competitive industry. BMI has been exposed to wider pressures faced by the global aviation industry such as increasing fuel prices and intense competition. Other EU airlines have collapsed in recent years; for example, Germania, Primera Air, Air Berlin and flyvlm. This is not just a UK issue. I agree with the noble Baroness that businesses want certainty. I am afraid that that I do not have any figures on jobs and retraining, but I regularly hear requests for certainty from the aviation industry. That is why we are working to deliver a deal and the implementation period that comes with it. I hope that that will be agreed soon so that we can give businesses the certainty they need.

Does the Minister agree that this diminution in services to and from provincial airports in the United Kingdom raises real questions about the viability of some of those airports? Does she also agree that having a good network of provincial airports is extremely important to the UK economy and the passenger group who wish to travel? Will she assure us that the Government will look at this problem as a matter of urgency?

I agree with the noble Lord on all those points. We are seeing supply outstrip demand on many of these routes. BMI cited 19 passengers per flight on a 50-seater plane; obviously, that would be very difficult to sustain. We are seeing other regional airlines take on those routes, but there is an excess of capacity. I agree with the noble Lord also on the importance of regional airports. Maintaining that regional connectivity is key. We provide a PSO on lifeline routes. Our aviation strategy, on which we published a consultation in December last year, looked at how we might support regional airports. They are important in providing connectivity not only for people but for freight and trade, and can act as a multiplier for local and regional economies. It is very important that we support them.

My Lords, will my noble friend further address overcapacity, which she just mentioned? When airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet are not making money, seeing their share price fall and issuing profit warnings, it obviously has implications for the whole industry.

I agree with my noble friend. It is a challenging time to be in the aviation industry at the moment for many reasons. We are seeing airlines having to address those challenges. Ultimately, they are commercial enterprises, and the share price will be dictated by demand and their profitability. Through the aviation strategy consultation, we are looking to support the industry. The UK aviation sector is incredibly important to the UK economy, providing £22 billion per year and hundreds of thousands of jobs. We want to make sure that our aviation strategy helps it continue in its success.

My Lords, I have a tangential interest. I know that the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, has an interest in what are called in technical jargon passengers with reduced mobility; that is, those who require assistance. Is she satisfied that the industry and government are doing enough to help those who will be stranded? Quite a number of them are extremely worried.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. Yes, we are satisfied that we are doing everything we can to help those passengers who are stranded. The CAA and the department are working closely with airlines. Detailed information on that is on the website. As always, we need to make sure that we pay special attention to PRMs, as they are called, to ensure that they receive the support they need to get home.

I welcome the Statement by the Minister. I thank the Government for the speed with which they have attended to the problem in Londonderry and the north-west of Northern Ireland. Airlines depend on passengers. The special support that the Government are giving the route from the City of Derry Airport to London is very much appreciated, not only in Northern Ireland but also in the Republic of Ireland, because Donegal uses the airport. Does the Minister recall that more than two years ago, when there was no such thing as Brexit, Ryanair withdrew from the Derry to London route, not because of Brexit—because it did not exist—but of lack of passengers?

The noble Lord is quite right that these routes will be dictated by passengers. However, as I mentioned previously, we have public service obligations, where the Government will provide funding to maintain these important routes. Perhaps I may provide further reassurance on the PSO route from Derry. Derry City and Strabane District Council have been in contact with a number of airlines. An emergency process is being invoked which allows the council to appoint another airline to take over the PSO for seven months without the full tender exercise. The department is working closely with the council to find a suitable alternative carrier on that route. We hope that an announcement will be made shortly.