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Air Travel

6. Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): If he will make a statement on the recent Civil Aviation Authority report on low-cost airlines and the growth in air travel. [42348]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Civil Aviation Authority published its report, "Demand for Outbound Leisure Air Travel and its Key Drivers", in December last year. The report contains an analysis of how various factors, including changes in income, wealth and air fares, affect the demand for leisure air travel. The Government's policy on these issues is set out in the White Paper that I   published in December 2003.

Mr. Prisk: In fact, the report shows that the boom in low-cost air travel has simply encouraged millions of Britons to spend more of their money abroad. The result is that our balance of payments deficit in tourism has mushroomed to £17 billion. In the light of that, and of the environmental impact of low-cost air travel, will the Secretary of State now stop claiming that all forms of air travel are automatically good for the UK economy? Will he also consider commissioning an independent study into the matter, to establish the full facts, both for and against?

Mr. Darling: I did not know that the Conservative party was in favour of exchange and travel controls. That seems quite a radical departure from its position over the past 30 years. The hon. Gentleman is right, however. It is worth bearing it in mind that, in 1998, about 8 million people travelled on low-cost airlines. The figure for 2004 was 54 million. I said before that, in   relation to aviation generally, people travelling more for business and leisure was a good thing. I do not think that the Government are in a position to say to people, "You cannot go abroad. You must stay here."—[Interruption.] That is the logical extension of what the hon. Gentleman is arguing. I strongly believe that we should encourage people to use the railways, when that is a viable option. That is why we have put so much money into the channel tunnel rail link, for example. Its next phase will open at the end of 2007, and will cut journey times from London to Paris and Brussels.
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We have also put a lot more money into improving the mainline rail services that compete with the airlines. For example, when work on the west coast main line is finally complete, people will be able to travel from London to Glasgow in four and a quarter hours, which is very competitive compared with the time spent travelling to the airport, and so on. The fact is, however, that people are choosing to travel more, and our job is to balance the need to enable them to do so with our very important environmental obligations. However, I do not accept the general proposition, which the hon. Gentleman appears to be advancing, that we should somehow force people to stay at home.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has just told the House of the significant number of passengers carried by the low-cost airlines. Those journeys take place mainly within Europe. In that context, Sir Roy McNulty of the Civil Aviation Authority recently told a Committee of the House that   the fledgling European Aviation Safety Agency was both underfunded and understaffed, and that is was likely to run out of money quite soon in this financial year. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that travel within Europe under this fledgling agency will be safe, and that the problems in the agency will be put right?

Mr. Darling: First, for the sake of brevity, I should say that I have answered a series of questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs.   Dunwoody) in relation to this matter, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony   Lloyd) might want to look at. Yes, the European Union safety agency has enough money. However, we are extremely concerned at the lack of progress it is making in doing its job.

I wrote to Commissioner Barrot to express the Government's extreme concern about the agency. I have also made it clear that I do not believe that there can be any question of it taking on any more responsibilities from existing national agencies until it sorts out some of the problems, which it has manifestly failed to do so far. In the meantime, however, I can assure my hon. Friend that our own safety regulator, the CAA, and National Air Traffic Services are keeping a close eye on the situation. We have made it very clear that we will not compromise safety.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept, in considering airport expansion, that low-cost airlines running low-cost passenger services with relatively small-capacity airliners in a business in which people pay per passenger, as airlines pay airports, do not produce a large return on extra flights? In considering expansion and, for example, the proposed runway at Stansted, does he accept that until Stansted attracts somebody other than low-cost airlines and establishes its first wide-bodied, regular service, it is difficult to see anybody being in favour of that new runway?

Mr. Darling: We seem to be getting more and more calls for state control from the Tory party; I am losing track of the movement that is taking place. No, I do not accept that proposition. The low-cost airlines, of which
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there are principally two at Stansted, are growing, profitable businesses, and it is not for the Government to tell them how they ought to run things. When we set out our strategy for airport development over the next 30 years—it is a 30-year programme—we came to the   view that the south-east of England, on any consideration, will need an additional two runways, the first of which is at Stansted. The fact that Stansted, at the   moment, is predominantly used by low-cost airlines does not seem to me to be a reason for stopping it, although I know what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and no doubt others do as well.

Regional Airports

7. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): If he will make a statement on Government support for regional airports. [42349]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck): The White Paper "The Future of Air Transport" acknowledged the important role played by regional airports and supported their growth to serve regional and local demand. Policy initiatives such as route development funds and fifth freedom rights are helping to attract new services and to promote better connectivity for passengers at regional airports.

Mr. McGovern: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. She will be aware of the massive contribution that Dundee airport makes to the local economy, providing vital links to London that enable and encourage businesses to locate in Dundee. I am aware that, strictly speaking, this might be regarded as a devolved issue—perhaps even a local government issue—but is there anything that the Government can do to help to secure the long-term interests of regional airports such as Dundee? Will the Government consider, for example, public service obligations—

Mr. Speaker: Order. One supplementary is fine. I ask the Minister to answer.

Ms Buck: I certainly accept the case that my hon. Friend and others have made about the importance of Dundee airport, and we support Dundee and many others. Indeed, it receives public funding from the Scottish Executive in recognition of that, and it is for Dundee to work with the Scottish Executive. We have recently published the guidance on public service obligations and we will consider specific proposals in that respect.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Will the Minister please consider carefully the potential growth of Bristol international airport, on the edge of my constituency of Weston-super-Mare? The growth plans it has outlined will inevitably result in significantly increased car traffic to and from the airport site. That will lead, inevitably, to greater road congestion in the area around the airport. Will she consider in particular potential expansion plans for junction 21 of the M5, which is the closest major junction to the airport?

Ms Buck: I visited Bristol in the summer, and the case for Bristol airport is well made. It is very much
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supported by the regional government. It is also recognised that growth will bring with it consequences for road transport and road transport access. I know that the local authorities concerned are considering the specific measures that they can introduce to ensure that airport growth does not inevitably bring with it an unacceptable rise in traffic congestion, and that there are specific proposals, which we will need to consider carefully.

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