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10 Jun 2010 : Column 52WH—continued

Having said that, there were other travel operators that benefited from this situation. I speak on a personal basis in saying that, and I would also like to make a comment about the unpredictability of the movement of the ash. When I was due to travel down to London at that time, I was told that either Aberdeen airport or the London airports were likely to be closed on my day of travel, so I elected to take the train. Earlier this week, we had a debate in the House that reinforced the case
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for high-speed rail going to Aberdeen. I say that because that journey took me seven and a half hours-on the fast train from Aberdeen. In the event, as I was on the train, I was able to check in on my phone and find that neither of the airports that I was due to fly to or from was affected by the ash.

However, people have to make plans, so one issue that needs to be addressed-the Minister has addressed it-is the fact that, if such events occur again, there must be the greatest possible accuracy and predictability to enable people to plan their options. Clearly, that would be important and helpful. No doubt the Civil Aviation Authority, the Met Office, NATS and everybody else will be getting together to ensure that we have a much better operating system, which would give people advance warning and the opportunity to make alternative plans. That would be instructive.

It was also interesting to see a situation in which nobody had ever considered the possibility of a total lack of planes in the skies for a week, and to see the mindset of modern life suddenly confronted with a quite unexpected challenge. For some people, that was shocking, inasmuch as all kinds of presumptions went out of the window, but for others it was perhaps refreshing, in that it made people understand that not all these flight journeys were necessary and that teleconferencing could be used quite effectively. For some people, there were more pleasurable means of surface transport than air travel, at least for the shorter journeys. Indeed, I heard one woman say that she had never seen the Alps, other than from the air, until she had to drive through them to find an airport from which she could get home.

It is right to acknowledge that that situation made people think differently. I do not know whether the Minister or her Department feel that they need to express any view about that, but it is being suggested that people might reconsider the kind of holidays or business trips that they make. People may consider that the risk of possible disruption justifies thinking about not travelling so far or finding places to travel to where there is surface transport. People might plan their lives slightly differently, especially given the fact that, as the Minister has warned us, a much bigger eruption could occur at any time, which could lead to more serious disruption.

I want to return briefly to the particular circumstances of the airport that is located in my constituency. Much the same as the airport in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, Aberdeen airport has suffered a direct loss-in landing charges and all the usual operating charges-which I estimate to be £1,056,000. That is a slightly more precise figure than the one that the hon. Lady gave for Newcastle International airport, but it is in pretty much the same ballpark.

BAA estimated that it lost £6 million per day for every day that the planes were not flying. Aberdeen airport recorded a 26% fall in passenger numbers in April 2010 compared with April 2009, yet in the first part of May 2010, the corresponding fall compared with the first part of May 2009 was 9.9%. In other words, the economic effect of the recession looks like accounting for 10% of the losses. The effect of the disruption from ash accounted for the other 15%.

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Obviously, airports, which are suffering from the recession, find such losses quite a significant hit to take. Because it is part of BAA, I guess, Aberdeen airport did not even suggest to me or to my office that it was looking for compensation, but it was nevertheless anxious that people should be made aware that the incident had cost it money and that that was of concern to it.

The Minister touched on this point, but I want to ask whether she can determine the extent to which the UK authorities and the European authorities are operating in total unity, or do we feel that we have a distinctive concern of our own? The fact is that we are further north than many other European countries and consequently closer to the source of eruption, so the likelihood of disruption for the UK is probably higher. That would justify us having our own standards, if necessary.

As the Minister correctly stated, safety is the prime concern for us all. Interestingly, the public reaction was remarkably sanguine. I think that the vast majority of people, not being technically aware and hearing that there was a problem, would not have wished to take a flight into the unpredictabilities of an ash cloud. As the closure extended to a significant number of days, some remarks from the airline industry raised a slight concern, in spite of the qualifications made, that commercial considerations may have been prejudicing the industry's judgment. That is understandable, but it reinforces the reason why such decisions must ultimately be taken by public agencies, not left to the commercial judgment of the operating airlines.

The public interest and the public good seem to justify the ability of Government and public agencies to take such decisions without the threat of financial liability for the consequences. It would be distasteful if, as some press reports have suggested, the airlines or the industry started to take European institutions, Governments, the CAA, the Met Office and so on to court over the issue. That would raise in the public mind a concern that public agencies whose job is to defend the public good and the public interest could suffer a commercial cost as a result of a decision that must be taken at short notice with the best of intentions. If necessary, the law should be brought into play to ensure that that does not happen.

That does not detract in any way from the fact that I have sympathy for the airlines. I recognise that they have a profit incentive and that none of them makes huge profits-indeed, hardly any are making any profit at the moment. However, we must ultimately operate on the basis of mutual good will and understanding. Conversely, the airlines are entitled to expect public agencies to seek the best possible advice so that unnecessary closures are not enforced and a full evaluation is made of the available options and diversions.

Interestingly, I read that there is some suggestion of an early-warning technology that could enable planes to identify dangerous concentrations of ash in flight and fly around, over or under them. It seems that we will accrue useful gains if we can make use of such technologies. I hope the Minister accepts that the right approach is a partnership between the public agencies and the industry. The public agencies should recognise that people want and need to fly, that flying is an economic necessity and that airlines must make revenues to keep their operations going. At the same time, public safety must be the overriding consideration.

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On a parochial conclusion, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North is right to speak up on behalf of the airport in Newcastle, and I hope she will forgive me if I make some additional special pleading. I mentioned the length of the fastest train journey from Aberdeen to London. For us, the airport is not just an alternative means of communication; it is our essential connection with the economic drivers of our area. Aberdeen is the international centre of the offshore oil and gas industry, so it is vital to us that people are able to fly in and out of the city. The disruption has had serious significance for us, as has the ongoing British Airways strike, although in that case we can at least use other operators.

I am sure that the House will understand, therefore, that I will be as concerned as anybody if long periods of closure or no flying are likely, but I am not prepared to defend the importance of flying to the economy or the airport to my constituency when passenger safety is the overriding priority. People need to be satisfied that the Government have the right balance of regulations in place and confident that those regulations are realistic, that they take account of the technical information available and airlines' capability to adapt to different circumstances, and, ultimately, that they balance commercial interests and the public interest. If we achieve that, even if another major disruption of this kind occurs, I hope that we will be able to manage it in a way that does not lead to long-term complete closure of flying. If that is what safety requires, that is what we must do, but I would think that we had learned enough this time probably to be able to prevent it from happening again. I certainly hope so.

3.4 pm

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): The Minister has set out clearly what problems the country faced and what tasks the Government had to go through. I am grateful for that summation of the situation, which I think was helpful for everybody.

In South Derbyshire live thousands of people who work at East Midlands airport, as well as thousands of people who make the magnificent air engines at Rolls-Royce, so I come at the issue with a two-pronged attack. Even though we had a week of peace while the airport was shut down, this situation has cost the airport's owners, Manchester Airport Group, about £10 million. I am sorry that the situation has cost other hon. Members' airports £1 million, but I think that I have trumped them. It has been a huge shock to our area. Passenger safety is the most important consideration, but the situation has hit us financially at a difficult economic time.

I applaud the Minister's statement and look forward to any compensation package that might be offered. It must be Europe-wide. It must not be just our Government going out on a limb. That would not be fair to everybody in the country. We should also work hard on new technology, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said, and ensure that we minimise any future risks from the volcano-I am not going to try Icelandic, so I will call it E15. It is interesting that there is an ongoing risk that it might erupt again, and that its neighbouring big brother might blow as well.

We have learned a lot from those two eruptions. It was not a happy time. I sincerely hope that the Department for Transport, and perhaps the Department for Business,
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Innovation and Skills, will consider working with Rolls-Royce, other aviation companies and universities in greater detail on new types of radar and so on.

On the compensation packages, I have received some interesting letters from residents caught up in the disruption. They have given me detailed descriptions of how they felt let down by consular activities, particularly out on the west coast of America. If I may, I will copy the Minister in on those documents-I will probably send them to the Foreign Office as well-because the Government need to hear at first hand what happened. South Derbyshire is a great place, and people rushing back to it were particularly annoyed that it took about another week to achieve that.

I am grateful to the Minister for what she has said. I know that the thousands of people who work at East Midlands airport and Rolls-Royce will be looking for leadership on the matter.

3.7 pm

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) in discussing the impact of the recent crisis. I represent Stourbridge in the west midlands, which-like every other town in the country, I dare say-is home to countless people who were inconvenienced or stuck abroad. The eruptions happened during the election campaign. I was due to attend the opening of a new building, including a ceremony and a whole day of events, at Old Swinford Hospital school, but it had to be cancelled because various teaching staff and governors were scattered around the globe.

Also-I will not say that this is worse-a couple of people from my election delivery team were detained in Dubai, along with about 10,000 or 15,000 other people, and were unable to return to the UK to help me to get elected. It was illuminating to see how many people are away at any one time. I was surprised to hear how many teaching staff were away on all sorts of educational trips, not necessarily with their students, in Australia and other parts of the world.

I will not repeat what my hon. Friend said about compensation and the need for transparency. I am sure that dealing with that is in the forefront of the Minister's mind.

On the national impact, our airline industry is looking at £1 billion of losses, which is a serious matter. My local airport was not as badly affected as the one in South Derbyshire, but Birmingham airport suffered losses of £2 million. There is also the ongoing effect to consider. This week, I spoke to the chief executive of Birmingham airport, who informed me that things seemed to be back to normal with long-haul flights-people visiting relatives in far-flung parts of the world-business flights and short-haul, two-week summer holidays. However, short, weekend-break holidays, when people spontaneously think that they might go somewhere for the weekend because there is an offer on easyJet, still seem to be struggling. People are still nervous about whether they will get back in time for work or other commitments at the end of their weekend break. Therefore, we should not forget the impact on future airline business.

Obviously, we need to learn from the way the crisis was handled in April. There certainly seems to have been a lack of application of research on identifying
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safe thresholds for volcanic ash in the atmosphere. My right hon. Friend the Minister gave examples of near disasters that have occurred over the past 20 or 30 years, but they seem not to have created a sense of urgency about improving regulations. As a result, the only option left in April was to close all our airspace. Now that the Government are going to get a grip on the issue, I hope that that will not be our only option when an eruption occurs again, as I am sure one will.

Initially, the main criticisms were that the UK allowed its airspace to remain closed for at least 24 hours longer than the rest of Europe. There were also questions over the extent to which help was given to passengers stranded around the globe. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire mentioned people on the west coast of America whom this country and the former Government could have done more to help, and I am sure that that is true of people who were stranded in other parts of the world.

I have also heard criticism from people in the airline industry that there was a real lack of political leadership at the outset of the crisis. It took a full three days before leading members of the Government were on the airwaves giving a lead as to what actions should be taken. The first time they came on the airwaves, it was to talk about sending the fleet to Spain to collect people who were stranded there, which was not the sort of initial leadership that passengers and airlines were looking for. I am sure that our new Government will learn from the leadership issues that arose during the crisis.

Obviously, there has been no major volcanic explosion in Europe for several hundred years, so we cannot blame anybody too much for the fact that all the airspace had to be closed. If I have mentioned certain matters, however, it is because there were things that could have been done, despite the fact that nobody expected the crisis to hit.

In finishing the first part of my speech, I pay tribute to Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said that most of us would not step into an aeroplane knowing the risks involved in flying into volcanic ash. Someone had to take the plunge and test a flight to see what the effects of ash in the atmosphere would be, and I greatly admire the chief executive of British Airways for leading from the front in that respect.

On the future, I hope that the research being done by easyJet will result in improvements to radar technology. I gather that the company is already testing its radar technology and believes that it will be good enough to predict ash clouds from about 60 miles away so that pilots will be able to fly around them. However, there is cause for a degree of caution about how far that will enable us to overcome the problem in the short term.

Malcolm Bruce: I want to reinforce that point. EasyJet should be commended for what it is doing, but does my hon. Friend agree that, if the technology is to make a viable contribution to a solution, it needs to be part of a regulatory arrangement, rather than the individual choice of one airline?

Margot James: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. It should be part of not only a UK, but an international regulatory solution. None the less, it is
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good to know that these technological developments are under way, although there is a fair way to go, even with the good work that easyJet has started. It is important that we understand the impact of not only denser ash clouds, but fragments and shards in the atmosphere. The key is to reach an understanding of what constitutes a safe level. I think that 2 mg per cubic metre is the accepted standard, but we need a greater evidence base to support that.

My right hon. Friend the Minister talked about the danger of the Katla volcano erupting. I gather from reading expert reports that it could have 100 times the impact of the previous volcanic eruption. Other experts-I am delighted that I now know that they are called vulcanologists, which sounds like something out of "Star Trek", although I am sure that we will be hearing more from them in the future-predict that the Icelandic volcanic system will enter an active phase in the 2030s, so it is timely that the Government are starting to add weight to the priority of the issue.

The events that we are discussing have been a salutary experience for everyone who has been caught up in them. We in the west somehow think that we have conquered nature in many respects in our daily lives, but recent events are a timely reminder that nature is still very much in charge.

I would also emphasise the fact that nobody-no Government, no regulatory body, no industry-can predict and plan for everything. The Government are absolutely on the right path in looking for a regulatory solution and working with the industry, and I am sure that we will get there, but there is no perfect solution. I have spent most of my working life in the pharmaceutical industry, and there is no such thing as a medicine without a risk, just as there will never be such a thing as a flight without a risk. We have to accept that there will always be a risk, but we have to reduce it to manageable levels. We should opt not for the no-fly solution that we were all panicked into, but for a more manageable level of risk reduction.

New politics means different things to different people. To me, it is important that we understand that there are limits to what Governments can do, so we should not be too quick to blame the previous Government for the problems that I have tried to do justice to this afternoon. We should not expect too much or a perfect solution from this Government or any future Government.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister and her team will do their very best to move the situation on so that the airline industry and passengers are not once again brought to a halt and dramatically inconvenienced in the way that they were, and so that we manage the risk of taking to the air. However, nothing can ever be perfect.

3.19 pm

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