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Airports: Delays

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 30 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of recent airport delays.

My Lords, Ministers have been very clear that the current situation is unacceptable and that passengers must be properly compensated where applicable. We are working closely with industry as it resolves the current issues and today the Transport Security announced a set of 22 measures that this Government are taking to support the aviation industry.

I am grateful to my noble friend. Responsibility for the chaos rests primarily with the airports, which are not providing the necessary support services, and with the airlines, which cannot provide the flights that people have paid for. To improve the industry’s response, a fortnight ago my noble friend set up a strategic risk group to meet weekly. Can she tell the House what fresh solutions that group is working on to minimise disruption to holiday travel; in particular, is it looking at lifting the restrictions on night flights?

My noble friend is absolutely right. The strategic risk group is now well under way. It meets weekly at the highest level. It is a CEO-level meeting with the Aviation Minister. It is working on all of the mitigations to the risks as they become higher up the priority list and therefore more urgent. The 22 measures are some of the things that have resulted from the strategic risk group and, indeed, from other conversations that are happening, particularly on the operational side of matters. On night flights, the Government are well aware that there is always a balance between the aviation travelling public and the communities that live and work near airports. The current rules extend to October 2025 and the Government have no plans to change them.

My Lords, is it not about time that the airlines stopped selling tickets that they cannot deliver? Should they not reduce the number of sales until they are absolutely certain that they, the airports, their colleagues and the immigration centre have enough resources?

That is exactly what the Government have said to the aviation sector. The Government and the CAA wrote to the sector, both the airports and airlines, to set out the expectations for both over the summer period. The first of those is that summer schedules must be reviewed to make sure that they are deliverable. To that end, the Government are changing the regulations with regard to slots, to introduce a slot amnesty for a part of the summer.

My Lords, is it not time that the Government took some action on behalf of the airline passengers? If we take the levelling-up strategy, for example, how can it be right that British Airways charges more than £500 for an economy return fare from Glasgow or Edinburgh if it is booked a week in advance? The travelling public are treated very badly by the airlines. In the past, my noble friend has rejected Written Questions from me suggesting that the Government should intervene, which I am sympathetic to, but this is just simply out of hand. The public are being taken for fools.

I maintain my position on intervening in the price of flights, but we are absolutely intervening in terms of the standards of care that passengers receive from the aviation sector. Again, as I mentioned, in the letter that we have recently written to the industry, one thing that we made very clear was that passengers must be informed promptly of their consumer rights. Obviously, passengers should take those up with the airline itself and then with the CAA if it is not acceptably resolved with the airline.

My Lords, as we know, the recent airport delays are undoubtedly a direct result of opportunistic employers such as BA slashing jobs, pay and conditions during the pandemic. Now, unfortunately, we can all see that the chickens are indeed all coming home to roost, with many airlines too slow to rehire and refusing to restore wages that were stolen from staff under the cover of Covid. However, I am pleased to tell the House that, thanks to my union Unite, members working for CAE cabin crew have now secured an 18% pay rise—yes, 18%—and £1,200 summer bonus. Does the Minister agree that BA should follow suit and reverse its 10% pandemic cut for everyone, not just for management as is currently the case?

As I am sure the noble Lord will not be surprised to learn, the Government will not get involved in the pay and conditions discussions within the aviation sector, as it is a private industry.

My Lords, does my noble friend share my frustration that, on every passenger ticket that is purchased, an airport passenger tax is taken? The number of passengers who are travelling should not come as a bolt from the blue, either to the airports or the airlines. What action is the CAA taking in this regard?

I am not entirely sure that I follow my noble friend’s question. We are taking all sorts of actions, as set out in the 22 measures that the Government announced today. That is from working with the ground handlers, where there is an issue with people getting their suitcases, to working with the airports to ensure they are able to cope with the number of flights arriving, and the airlines to ensure that their service is as good as possible and that they can meet their schedules, not cancel flights at short notice.

My Lords, do the 20-plus measures that the Minister referred to include additional staff for the Border Force, to make sure that it always has the capacity to deal with the additional security requirements that the Minister referred to in her Written Answers to me, which require the staff to take additional measures and time? Will there always be efficiency and sufficiency of staff for the Border Force?

Yes, I can absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that we have established a joint Home Office and DfT ministerial border group to identify and prepare for the high levels of demand at the UK border. Over the course of the half-term, the Border Force deployed extensive plans to ensure that it was able to meet demand, and the e-gates have been upgraded to make them more effective.

My Lords, last time we discussed this issue, I commented on the need for the department to get involved early. In fact, it seems that the department accepted my advice but did not get round to it until mid-June. Intervention in aviation is crucial because of the complex interaction. Can the Minister advise us, first, on how we will get to know about these 22 measures and perhaps write to me, listing them and putting a copy in the House? Can she also explain how a fast-moving industry that traditionally has to plan day by day can really make an impact with a weekly meeting?

Yes, I agree with the noble Lord that it is a very complex ecosystem, not just within our own borders but internationally. Issues outside our borders can have quite a significant knock-on impact. The 22 measures that I have already mentioned today will be published as a WMS today, but if there is not enough detail then I will happily write to him with the full detail on what they are. The noble Lord mentioned the Government not getting involved. When he looks at the 22 measures, he will see that there are things that have been in train for a very long time, so the Government have been working on this over a significant time. The Government do not intend to get involved in the day-to-day operations of the airports; these weekly meetings are very much about taking a medium-term view of emerging risks.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the increasing use of fast track by airports, which demands a fee to get through the airport in a reasonable time? Does she not agree that the airports have a duty to do that for every passenger, not just for those who pay an extra fee?

I absolutely agree that every passenger should get a good service at an airport and be able to get through security within reasonable time. I know that the airports are beefing up their staffing. The Government have done an enormous amount in this area as well: we have ensured that UK security vetting now has no delays; we have also changed the regulations to ensure that training for these new security staff can start while background checks are ongoing.

My Lords, the chief executive of easyJet has said that one problem it is suffering is that:

“The pool of people is smaller, it’s just maths. We have had to turn down a huge number of EU nationals because of Brexit. Pre-pandemic we would have turned down 2-2.5% because of nationality issues. Now it’s 35-40%.”

How does the 22-step plan that the Government have produced deal with these kinds of staffing shortages?

The 22 measures include a number of interventions that we can make to sort the staffing shortages. Obviously, I have mentioned the changes to the security regulations. We are working alongside the industry—ultimately this is its issue, which it must deal with—but we have been very content to support it in terms of working with the general aviation sector to encourage communication about careers in it. The Aviation Skills Recruitment Platform has already been launched and we are working with students with the Talentview Aviation platform; indeed, we have 21 aviation ambassadors. There are all sorts of things that the Government are doing, but I remind the House that this is an issue that the industry must solve.