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Airport Parking Charges

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered airport parking charges.

Drivers are being forced, tricked or directed to pay extortionate amounts to drop off or collect passengers at airports. To make matters worse, two thirds of the UK’s busiest airports have put their prices up. Of course, airports are entitled to charge when the land is privately owned, but the taxpayer has already paid for the road up to the airport. Yet the signposts do not send the driver to a safe and free place for drop-off or collection. No-stopping zones on the roads leading up to the airport mean that the principles of choice and safety are not obvious. That means that drivers are being deliberately exploited.

Airports must be required to offer drivers a free and safe place to drop off and collect passengers, and, where they do, that must be clearly signposted on the approach to an airport. Although it may seem that there are craftily many different options for parking at airports, given the pressure of traffic, it is chaotic and stressful for drivers to locate the correct one.

The increasing number of train strikes mean that many passengers depend on a friend or relative to drop them off at an airport. As a result, those drivers suffer, rather than the actual holidaymaker. In that sense, the drop-off charge is a small tax on generosity. Failure to signpost free options effectively means that drivers are at risk of breaking the law either for stopping on a nearby roundabout or for dropping someone off on a red route leading up to the airport; such routes are rightly enforced for reasons of security. Indeed, drivers caught stopping on those red routes are fined £100.

In 2019, the Parking (Code of Practice) Act received Royal Assent, promising greater regulation to prevent motorists from being treated unfairly by private parking companies. Airports were considered as part of the code of practice. However, this June, the private parking code of practice was temporarily withdrawn,

“pending review of the levels of private parking charges and additional fees.”

It would be welcome if the code of practice brought greater clarity and consistency to airport parking charges to better regulate the industry for both airports and motorists, which I believe the Government have a duty to do.

Ironically, the Civil Aviation Authority, in its review of market conditions for surface access to airports, claimed that environmental factors played a part in airport parking decisions. The Airport Operators Association, which represents over 50 UK airports, claims that high airport parking charges are there to force consumers to travel to and from airports sustainably. Nice try, but everyone knows that aeroplane journeys emit far more carbon dioxide per passenger than cars over set distances. Who are airports trying to fool by claiming to be going green by charging higher parking fees to deter a few short car journeys while air travel accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions?

It is right that the Government encourage people to use public transport, which does not incur a drop-off fee. However, with the looming threat of militant unions striking, would you really rely on public transport to get to the airport on time, Mr Stringer?

Last week, I met Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy at the RAC, who informed me that in theory, some airports provide free drop-off options. However, Heathrow and Gatwick airports, which used to provide free drop-off points, now charge £5 to enter the drop-off zone by the terminal. Imagine if people knew they had a choice—which they do not. On top of that, at Gatwick, people are then charged £1 for every minute over and above the allocated 10 minutes at the drop-off site. To enter through the barrier—again, with no choice to escape—find a parking space, park, unload baggage, say goodbye, and exit through the barrier all within the allotted 10 minutes seems optimistic for anyone, let alone those who are elderly or families with young children. Most expensive of all is London Stansted, which charges £7 for just 15 minutes’ parking and £25 for more than 15 minutes in drop-off zones. In the case of Exeter airport, there is no free option at all. Do the Government really expect someone to throw their loved one out of the car miles away from the terminal in order to avoid being fined?

With flight delays becoming increasingly common, those collecting family and friends who must find a place to wait could end up paying through the nose through no fault of their own. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has recorded that in 2022 the average flight delay has increased to 25 minutes per flight, up from 15 minutes in 2019. At Bristol airport, those giving a lift to friends and family are required to pay £5 for just 10 minutes to drop off or collect them. That fee increases to £7 for between 10 and 20 minutes, and £20 for between 20 and 40 minutes. That seems excessive for someone who is merely trying to collect someone whose flight has been delayed for half an hour, yet drivers collecting passengers from delayed flights are left with no viable alternative.

Recent airport staffing shortages have also led to lengthy delays of several hours at passport control in airports such as Heathrow and Stansted. With delays at airports becoming increasingly commonplace, those collecting passengers are left unsure of how long they will be required to wait—what initially seemed like a 10-minute wait might quickly become an hour. Where are those people supposed to wait that does not charge extortionate prices?

Additionally, not all taxi drivers are exempt from the charges. In the event of a long delay, a taxi driver on a pre-booked job might see his profit completely slashed because of the waiting times, meaning that through no fault of his own, he would have done better to have stayed at home. Bristol airport is one of the very worst offenders, using vans with cameras to follow drivers and try to levy fines for stopping, irrespective of how confusing that airport’s signage is.

Airports are exploiting their own regulations just as rogue parking firms used to. Drivers are forced to find the nearest free drop-off zone, which of course is impossible, as those zones are hidden. Where airports provide free options they tend to be far away from the terminal, and a shuttle bus to the terminal is not always provided. As a result, passengers with mobility issues or heavy bags are bound to struggle. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that, allegedly, the free option for drop-off at London Heathrow is located far away from the terminal, in the long-stay car park? I suggest that if someone were driving into an airport and looking for a place to park for a short amount of time, the long-stay car park would be the last place they would look. Passengers are then expected to take a shuttle bus to the terminal, only adding to their stress and to the extra time needed to catch a flight. I know that many airports are struggling for money, but do the Government think it is right that they attempt to hoodwink airport visitors to make up for it?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and for his very powerful words on the subject. In Woking, we have both Gatwick and Heathrow within a reasonable distance, and I have had a lot of correspondence from constituents about the removal of free drop-off parking. I am also a great supporter of aviation. During covid times, I helped my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) with his excellent efforts to support the aviation industry—both airlines and airports. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) said, airports have had a difficult financial time, but will he look to the Minister and, indeed, to airports to ensure that when we reach a new normal—as things might not go back to where they were before covid—that airports reinstate free drop-off parking, so that this ridiculous removal of any sort of free parking does not continue?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who quite naturally has delightful constituents who generously want to take their friends and family to and from the airport. Of course, that may not be an option for people who live further away. He is right to speak up for those people and insist that normality, which we all now enjoy, is returned to on parking as quickly as possible. When I finish this last blast, I know the Minister will do all he can about the theft from these poor, innocent and good people, who are just trying to do the right thing. That is why I believe it is essential that airports provide free and safe drop-off and pick-up points for motorists, as well as clear and helpful signs.

The Department for Transport must make it clear on approach roads where these free and safe options can be found. The Government need to ensure that the road tax payer has the right to remain on public roads, which we have paid for, rather than be herded onto private land where we are exploited. No amount of hand-wringing is acceptable, otherwise airports will continue to close. The greenwash, fudging and theft are wrong, and I know the Minister will do all he can to correct that as soon as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) on securing the debate on airport parking charges and delivering his asks with his usual robust purposefulness. I recognise that the issue will be of interest to many people who use our airports, in particular those travelling abroad again for the first time to see friends and relatives or go on a much deserved holiday. I have listened to and had the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend. I have certainly taken into account his comments and will try to address most of them.

I will say at the outset that, in years gone by, I was involved in many consumer campaigns with Which? on the benefits of free access to airports and other transport modes. I agree that it can be frustrating when we use something that was previously free and then it is charged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) said, while many of these charges came in during the covid period, many had actually been planned in advance around the sustainability point and decarbonisation. I will touch on that later in my speech.

Increasingly, we are seeing airports transform into regional transport hubs that support multiple businesses, labour markets and population centres. They provide significant economic benefit to their local areas, and reliable and efficient surface access connections play an important part in achieving that. I am pleased, as I hope we all are, to see an increased demand for aviation and air travel as the sector continues to recover from the covid-19 pandemic, and I certainly recognise the contributions of both my hon. Friends on what they did to make that happen. It is important that we aim to balance the sector’s recovery with the UK’s environmental goals, as I touched on previously. We therefore expect that airports, through their surface access strategies, set targets for sustainable passenger and staff travel to the airport. These targets should, where possible, meet the ambitions set by Government and be monitored by their respective airport transport forums.

I am rather disappointed in the Minister’s opening remarks, which seem to be on the side of the airports on sustainability grounds. When a family is going on holiday, perhaps with a frail elderly person or someone who is disabled, does it make any sense to have to go to the long-stay car park, unload all the baggage and try to get the disabled or frail elderly person on to the bus—only to have to do it all again on the way back? That is not right. I was not aware that the airports were thinking of introducing this pre-covid. The letter that I got from Heathrow when I wrote on behalf of constituents placed the main emphasis on the financial shortfall over covid and said that the airport therefore needed to introduce the measures. I am surprised that the Government might support that.

I am sorry to be a disappointment to my hon. Friend. The situation we have is that unlike, for example, our rail provision, airports are private organisations and there will be a direct contract between those using the airport and the airport operators—it is down to them. I have indicated my sympathy as regards the requirement to put charging in. Heathrow’s expansion is predicated on its ability to reduce air pollution; that is one of the key issues in allowing Heathrow to expand. What the aviation industry and the airport operators are doing is responding to the need to reduce the carbon emission footprint around the airport. That is one such measure.

Drop-off and parking arrangements at most airports are subject to contractual agreements between airport operators and car park companies. Those arrangements are covered by consumer laws. Most airport websites contain information on the drop-off and car park options available at the airport, and recommendations on the best options depending on length of stay. I will go on to talk more about signage and information shortly, because that was one of the key requests from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire.

Most airports in the UK choose to charge a premium for drop off at their terminals. I understand that Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham airports, all of which are closer to my hon. Friend’s constituency, charge fees for the use of drop-off zones. I recognise that the introduction of a charge for dropping off passengers, when it might have been free of charge previously, may be frustrating to some motorists. However, the provision and charging of car parking at airports, including drop-off charges—this comes back to the point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking—is a matter solely for the airport operator, as a commercial business, to manage and justify.

The arrangements for drop-off charges at airports are not a tax on the motorist; they are a contractual arrangement between the airport, the car parking company and the driver. That is the same as the different charges for the use of short and long-stay car parks, which can be located further away from the terminal buildings. It is a choice that the driver can make when planning their trip to the airport, but I recognise that some people have more choices than others because of mobility. I recognise the points that have been made about that.

I have two points. On the point the Minister just made, normally a service provider will provide a service for which they charge. There is no service being provided. We just want an area where we can drop off our passengers. To go back to the earlier point about sustainability and air quality around Heathrow: if that was a main driver, should not electric and low-emission vehicles be able to drop off for free?

I will go into detail on the second point, but to come back to the point about electric vehicles, that is something that airports are developing. They are slightly hampered by the lack of HGVs, but it is something that they are working on in conjunction with other matters.

Let me address the point that drop-off zones were supposed to be temporary during covid. Airports have been implementing drop-off zones and charges since before the pandemic, as part of their work on delivering sustainable and affordable travel options. Charging for the use of drop-off zones may encourage airport users to make more journeys to airports by public transport, which will assist with the wider sustainability ambitions of the Government. However, I recognise that at airports such as Bristol, rail options are few and far between. As demand for air travel returns, with people understandably keen to resume their lives, airports have further indicated that drop-off charges will help to avoid a car-led recovery.

I know that information and signage is important to my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire. Given the choice for drivers, it is even more important that airports are transparent in their parking offer. The Government expect and encourage airports to be clear on the available choices for parking on their websites, along with information on how to access them. I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments on this matter. This information must ensure that there is a clear and visible signage point at the airport to ensure that drivers are well informed and aware of the arrangements and requirements, as well as the other parking options. I have raised this matter with my colleague, the aviation Minister, Baroness Vere, to see whether we can underline the importance of this matter in our communication with airports, and she has confirmed she will do just that on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I want to say a huge thank you. What upsets us is that we have paid for a public road and then we are fined for parking, and there has been no opportunity to choose. Choice is the key. I do not mind if we have to pay for environmental things, or if we are being distracted or even being sent places we do not want to go. However, we really do need a choice, because, as taxpayers, we have already paid for the road. I thank the Minister very strongly indeed.

That is very kind of my hon. Friend. As a constituency MP who has long been frustrated when people are not treated as they should be, I know that information is key, so I completely agree with him.

Government guidance on the use of signage on public roads can be found in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016, which prescribe the design and conditions of use for traffic signs, including road markings. Parking trade associations such as the British Parking Association provide guidance in their codes of practice to their members on the use of signage, with due regard to the existing regulations. All of that goes alongside the assurance I have given my hon. Friend.

Earlier, I mentioned that airports are responsible for setting their surface access strategies. I encourage airports to set out their intentions in respect of drop-off charges and parking, and to use specific airport transport forums to develop and oversee the implementation of plans for future surface transport provision. That will help not only to prevent confusion and the risk of drivers inadvertently entering drop-off zones, but to reduce the chances of accidents due to drivers taking evasive action to stop themselves entering such zones. All of this will, I hope, assist in making each stage of the journey to an airport as easy as possible. If drivers feel that signage at airports does not make them aware of the arrangements and requirements for drop-off charges, they can submit an appeal to the Parking on Private Land Appeals Service. We will continue to keep this provision under review as part of the Government’s work on a single code of practice for parking companies.

On the provision of alternatives, I welcome the consideration my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire has given to alternatives to drop-off zones, including the use of other car parks, both short and long stay, although I hear his point about how far away long stay actually is. While I accept that additional transfers are required, I would make the point that, at the very least, long-stay car parks provide an alternative to paying. Airports including Gatwick, Manchester and Bristol offer free drop-off zones at designated car parks a short walk from the terminal or with the option of a shuttle bus service. I encourage airports to ensure that such options are readily available to drivers so that they can plan their journeys in advance.

I note the concerns raised by my hon. Friend that motorists may incur additional parking costs through no fault of their own when delays or disruption caused by late flights or industrial action result in a longer than expected stay. I note his example of the charges at Bristol airport, where the drop-off zone charges are £5 for up to 10 minutes, £7 for between 10 and 20 minutes and £10 for between 20 and 40 minutes. I note that Bristol’s short-stay car park is often cheaper for the same amount of time—having done some earlier research, he will be glad to hear—costing £5 for up to 20 minutes or £7 for between 20 and 40 minutes.

Airports already highlight the potential disruption to passengers and how that might affect their journeys. Again, I would be happy to raise with the aviation Minister what more airports can do to ensure that drivers and passengers are well informed and offered flexibility of provision if there is disruption. I acknowledge that at some airports, such as Bristol, there are no rail links and alternatives to cars are more limited; Civil Aviation Authority figures for 2019 highlight that 68.3% of passengers arrive by car.

On the regulation of airport parking, if an airport contracts a private parking operator to manage parking on the land, the parking operator must be a member of a trade association and follow its respective codes of practice and appeals procedures. The two trade associations are the British Parking Association and the International Parking Community. Their codes set out the requirements that parking operators must follow, including on signage, if they wish to access the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency data to issue parking charges to the owner of a vehicle. Both associations offer, on behalf of their members, an independent appeals service to motorists who receive a parking charge and wish to dispute it. On my hon. Friend’s point about the proposed parking regulations being withdrawn, that has indeed been the case due to judicial review, but I look forward to the regulations coming back, to see how they can be further improved upon.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire on securing this debate. It has been an opportunity for both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking to draw attention to expectations for car parks at airports—that they should be managed appropriately and that consumers should be treated fairly. I assure my hon. Friends that the Government are keen to improve the regulation of the parking industry. We continue to consult on changes to parking charge levels and additional fees with the industry, with the aim of reissuing the parking code of practice as soon as possible.

The charges associated with car parking at airports are solely a matter for the airport operator to manage. Airport users entering into parking arrangements are covered by consumer law. We will all ensure that such arrangements treat the airport user fairly and respectfully, and we will see what more can be done on the points that have been raised.

Question put and agreed to.