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Aviation: Cost of Travel

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the options for reducing the cost of travelling by plane from Great Britain to (1) Northern Ireland, and (2) other parts of the United Kingdom not attached to the mainland.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of air travel for UK connectivity, and we are supporting this connectivity through public service obligations, or PSOs, and a 50% cut in air passenger duty on domestic flights from 1 April 2023.

My Lords, I thank the Minister. Does she realise that air passenger duty will still be payable both ways, whereas when you fly out of the UK, you only pay it one way? Is she concerned about the escalating costs of flights to Northern Ireland and back? The prices are outrageous now. Dublin Airport has no air passenger duty and a huge subsidy from its Government, and you can get duty free from Dublin to London—but you cannot do so from Belfast to Mallorca because we are still accordingly in the EU. Does the Minister not realise that something has to be done if we mean levelling up? We cannot level up without a fair opportunity for people to fly within the United Kingdom.

There is a fair opportunity for people to fly in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in the week commencing 27 November, there were 143 flights a day between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The provision has recovered, demand is back to 2019 levels and it is a competitive market.

I understand what the noble Baroness said about Northern Ireland because that is divided by sea, but it is very difficult to understand why we have lowered the cost of internal flights when the French have banned theirs on climate change grounds, and why we have very high rail fares instead. Why did we not reduce the rail fares between England and Scotland, not the carbon-intensive air fares?

I am sure that my noble friend is aware that, when we reduced domestic air passenger duty, we added a new ultra-long haul distance band to ensure that the revenues to the Exchequer were maintained. It is the case that the Government have stringent and detailed plans in place to decarbonise our aviation sector, and there will be more on that to come.

With all due respect to the Minister, she did not answer the main thrust of the question from the noble Lord, Lord Deben, which related to the availability of reasonably priced train services as an alternative to aviation. I add an additional point to his question: the train services should not just be reasonably priced; they should also be reliable, and recent debates here have proved that they are not so.

I know that the noble Baroness will have the opportunity to quiz me on rail tomorrow. It is the case that we want rail fares to be as low as possible. To achieve that, we need a modern, seven-day railway, which is what this Government are trying to achieve.

My Lords, a person recently booked a single ticket for a flight from Belfast to London which cost £420. This would be the same as the cost of a flight from London to the United States of America. There are few other modes of transport between Belfast and London, so how are families expected to pay such exorbitant prices and what real action can the Government take to assist them?

The reality is that this is a competitive market and fares are a commercial decision by the airlines. I have already noted that provision has recovered to where it was before. It is the case that peak-time fares will be expensive, but I believe that there are significantly cheaper fares available than the one he quoted.

My Lords, this is not just a problem across the Irish Sea; it is also a problem when going to Scotland. I have just checked what the fare will be to travel from London City Airport to Edinburgh tomorrow evening one way: it is £425.46. That is ridiculous. It is not a competitive market; we do not have enough competition, which is why people can charge these exorbitant fares.

We have one of the most liberal aviation markets in Europe and, indeed, in the world. It is the case that, at peak times, including travelling to Scotland in the evening, flights may well be very expensive, but people who can be flexible with their time will be able to find cheaper alternatives.

I put it to the Minister that, if she wants to preserve the union of these islands, we need to remember that there are more islands than just Northern Ireland. The Scottish National Party makes great play of the fact that it subsidises visits to Shetland, but of course you cannot do that if you are English, and there is no subsidy if you go to the Scilly Isles. It is time that we started looking at a fare subsidy system throughout the UK, if we want to hold this union together.

It is the case that there are 17 PSOs in Scotland, and an agreement was reached between the Scottish Government and the UK Government that they would be administrated and paid for by the Scottish Government. Again, the Government are open to any local authority able to set out a business case for a PSO. We will look at that on a strategic and economic basis, and, if it makes sense and stacks up, we would be able to support it.

My Lords, I think that some of us may be struggling to understand the Minister’s definition of “competitive”. My understanding of the term in these circumstances is that it is to do with pushing prices down, not pushing them up. It is very hard to understand how she can describe the evidence that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has just put before her as evidence of a competitive market. Could she explain?

Absolutely. In a competitive market, if one chooses to book 24 hours ahead of a particular journey, I should imagine one is going to pay more. However, we also know that costs for the aviation sector are quite high at the moment; fuel costs are particularly high, and they have had to restaff after the pandemic. It is a competitive market because there are many providers operating from many London airports that are able to offer a service.

My Lords, I have been looking around the House as the Minister has been answering the Question, and there is a look of disbelief on all sides. No one believes that she understands what is actually happening in the country, in relation to this. The Question refers also to the islands of Scotland, as I understand it. Could she try to advise us how to get from the mainland of Scotland to some of the islands, when air fares are exceptionally high and there are no ferries, because the Scottish Government cannot build any?

Ah, yes, the sorry saga of the Scottish ferries—I am very pleased that that is not in my inbox for the time being. It is the case that the public service obligations operate between the Scottish islands. They are supported, so those fares are subsidised. But the point here is that it is not up to this Government to take taxpayers’ money gathered from teachers and policemen and all sorts of people to subsidise air fares where there is a competitive market. The Government simply are not going to do that. What we will allow is for new operators to come into the market, which is what we are trying to encourage, to make the market as competitive as possible.

My Lords, it certainly is the Government’s obligation to think carefully about the question asked by my noble friend Lord Deben. It is appalling that we are not encouraging people in every possible way, when we get over this series of terrible strikes, to use the railways between Scotland and England rather than to fly. There is a far better option.

The Government believe in choice. While we absolutely want to resolve the rail strikes as soon as possible, because they will be turning people away from the railways, which is absolutely not what we want to see, when it comes to flying we believe that it is the case that we can decarbonise aviation. That is what we set out in our Jet Zero Strategy, and that is the plan that we are going to follow.

My Lords, the Minister on certain occasions has mentioned that it is a competitive industry. We know that some airlines have chosen to cut back services, and customers’ choice, from Northern Ireland to the mainland. What precise discussions has the Minister had with airlines, including easyJet and Aer Lingus, to find out why they are removing such services? What more can be done to ensure that leisure and business travellers to Northern Ireland do not suffer?

I can reassure the noble Lord that the numbers of flights per day between Northern Ireland and Great Britain are the same as they were before the pandemic. However, he is right that Aer Lingus has had to make a change to its schedule. What happened was that the Aer Lingus flights were taken up by another operator in the International Airlines Group, so there was no diminution in the number of services. We hope to see Aer Lingus back on that route soon.

My Lords, the Minister has not answered the question. Price per mile—both by air and on trains—is much higher here than in many parts of Europe. Why is that, when there is supposed to be competition?

There are numerous factors when it comes to that, but in Flightpath to the Future we set out the 10 points that we can do in terms of making our aviation sector as competitive as it possibly can be. We will look at airspace modernisation and slot reform, and we will look at decarbonisation—and that will bring down prices.