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Airports and Airlines: Staff

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that (1) airports, and (2) airlines, in the United Kingdom have enough staff to ensure that British holidaymakers do not have their holidays cancelled or delayed this summer.

My Lords, on 30 June, the Secretary of State announced 22 measures which the Government are currently taking to support the aviation industry to help recruit and train staff, ensure the delivery of a realistic summer schedule, minimise disruption and support passengers when delays and cancellations are unavoidable. The Government recognise that these issues are primarily for industry to solve, but this series of targeted measures will support its efforts.

My Lords, I wonder if the Minister saw last night’s “Panorama”—not that I instigated its being shown before my Question or its being about this issue. A list of things is responsible: Covid, staff shortages, security, air traffic control, baggage handling, check-in staff, passport control, even Brexit. A lot of people in this country are planning to have holidays but are worried about the insecurity and uncertainty. Just on my way in, I was talking to a Member of this House who said that he and his family want to go on holiday, “if we can get away”. Surely we can do better than that.

I did not manage to see the “Panorama” programme last night, but I saw some highlights today and I recognise some of the issues that the noble Lord pointed out. As I said in my Answer, this is for the private sector to resolve. However, we have been working with the aviation industry on this for months to make sure that we are giving it all the support we can, so that it can offer consumers the sorts of timetable that can actually be delivered.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Heathrow monopoly is in the hands of owners who put the interests of shareholders far ahead of customers? Dividends of £4 billion have been drawn out in the last 10 years and the airport has been saddled with £16 billion of debt. Now it wants the regulator to approve hikes in passenger charges of well over 50%, in the midst of the most abject and abysmal service.

I reject the noble Lord’s comment that London Heathrow has a monopoly. There are eight slot-restricted airports in England and many other airports beyond that. I simply say to airlines: if you do not like Heathrow, go elsewhere.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that airline staff flying into the EU now need their travel documents to be stamped? I am sure she is, but is she aware that staff are reporting a potential crunch coming down the track in August, as their documents will be full of stamps and will therefore have to be renewed, with consequent delays? What are the Government doing to expedite that?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising that. I am not aware of that issue, so will take it back to the department.

Apropos the previous question, does my noble friend agree, as was my recent experience, that flying from and to Bournemouth international airport is perfectly wonderful? It works like clockwork.

I have heard my noble friend wax lyrical about the wonders of Bournemouth Airport, and there are many other airports like that around the country. I encourage everybody to look at those smaller airports; you often might get a better service.

My Lords, the noble Baroness often says, as she said today, that this is for the private sector. Heathrow is ultimately a monopoly licensed by the state. There is not lots of competition out there; everything that is capable of managing significant international traffic is full. The Government are responsible for Heathrow’s performance. They are responsible for the common good; that is what Governments are for. They seem to agree with me: as of 12 July, the strategic risk group has met five times, the summer resilience group four times, and the ministerial border group four times. According to its chief executive, Heathrow is improving. This shows that the Government have intervened and had a benign effect. I congratulate them, but why did they not intervene sooner and save passengers from the misery they have suffered?

I am incredibly happy to accept the congratulations of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe. We have worked with the aviation sector incredibly hard to try to minimise the disruption that happened at half-term as we go into the summer period. He asked why it took so long, but we have been working on this for months. For example, we changed the law so that training could start before certain checks had been completed. We laid that statutory instrument on 29 April. Statutory instruments do not just appear in order to be laid; they are the subject of weeks of work. We have been working very closely with the sector, and the Civil Service has been working extremely closely and very hard on all these measures. As he said, they are having an impact.

My Lords, while there are pandemic-related staff shortages across the whole of Europe, is a large part of the problem in the UK not Brexit-related, as evidenced by the piece in the Times last week by the head of Menzies Aviation? He added his voice to that of the head of easyJet, which has had to turn down thousands of job applications from EU workers. The Minister says she is not responsible for the free market, but the Government are responsible for Brexit.

A cursory glance at the aviation industry around the world will show that this problem is not specific to the UK. The US has had significant problems, as have Ireland, the Netherlands and France. The last time I looked, those three countries were members of the European Union.

My noble friend is aware of the delays as a result of the need to look at security clearance for staff. This is particularly so with large numbers of new staff being required to fill these vacancies. That security clearance check is important, but those delays could be speeded up immensely.

I reassure my noble friend that the Government cracked this problem many months ago and there are no delays within UK security vetting. Accreditation checks are currently taking five days; counterterrorism checks are taking 10 days. These are much better than they were pre pandemic.

My Lords, I am lucky enough to be having a holiday in mid-Switzerland in a couple of weeks. In under a day, I can go from Switzerland back to my home in west Cornwall by train. Does the Minister agree with me that part of the answer to this might be to look for less carbon-intensive forms of transport?

As the noble Lord may know, the Government published our Jet Zero Strategy today. We are absolutely focused on decarbonising the aviation sector, but we recognise that high-speed rail is also very attractive.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. Would it not help passengers to fly if the Government could manage to sort out the renewal of passports? Also, would it not help if the Government were able to get the airports and airlines to work together, instead of criticising each other, given that check-in and baggage handling are handled by the airlines but the remainder of the journey through the airport is the responsibility of the airport itself?

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is completely right. When we and the CAA wrote to the industry at the beginning of June, we said that we wanted each airport to set up airport partner working groups, which would bring together the airport itself, the airlines, the ground handlers, Border Force and air traffic control. We are conscious that ground handling is an important part of the movement of passengers and their luggage through airports, so we will conduct a review of the sector to look at its quality and efficiency and at whether there are any opportunities for change.

My Lords, is it not the case that we need six free pages to accommodate stamps when travelling within the European Union, for example, if that passport needs to be stamped to enter the country? What can be done to discourage or even stop airlines from taking bookings on already overbooked flights? It creates additional, questionable revenues on seats that are known not to be available, before placing additional misery on those affected.

The Government have been absolutely clear with the aviation sector: we do not want short-notice cancellations or overbooked flights. We have done everything that it has asked us to do with the slots hand-back, the legislation for which went through your Lordships’ House recently, as noble Lords may have seen. In return, having done everything the aviation sector would like, we do not want passengers being treated in the way in which the noble Viscount explained.