Orders of the Day — Glasgow Airport

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1969.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

4.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

I want to call attention to certain matters affecting Glasgow Airport. First, it is said that too much money has been spent on the airport. Secondly, it is said, by implication, that we should not have two big airports within a short distance of each other. Thirdly, that Glasgow Airport is more subject to fog than is Prestwick. Fourthly, there is the statement which my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade made in reply to a Written Question put by me on 22nd February last year.

Up to 20th February, 1969, £2·4 million had been given by the Government for the construction and development of Glasgow Airport. Ultimately, this sum is expected to reach £2·6 million—a total which does not attract interest and is not repayable. Up to 1st April, 1966, when ownership vested in the British Airports Authority, whose headquarters are in London, £8¾ million of public money had been spent on Prestwick Airport. Since that date Government loans of £4 million and a further loan of £1 million, due to be taken up on 15th March, have been given to the B.A.A., in which I am sure that Prestwick is sharing.

It should be remembered that Glasgow's citizens helped to provide the £54,910 million borrowed by B.A.A. for capital equipment and necessary development, in both of which Prestwick shares, and no complaints have come from Glasgow about that. But when we compare the money paid for Prestwick with what has been paid for Glasgow the stupidity of the charge that too much has been given to the Corporation becomes obvious.

As to the allegation that Glasgow and Prestwick are too near each other, the real test, in respect of air travel, is the time spent by the traveller between leaving his home and reaching his objective. For a Glasgow passenger it takes about 20 minutes more to get from Glasgow to Prestwick than it does to get from Glasgow to London on a Trident aircraft. That is why he wants his airport at Abbotsinch and not 30 miles away.

Next, we are told that Prestwick is not closed, so often as Glasgow is, by fog. This canard has been pursued relentlessly by those who desire to harm Glasgow Airport and bring advantage to Prestwick. What are the facts? In 1968, out of 45,018 aircraft movements at Glasgow only 97 diversions were made due to weather. Of the 97, 84 occurred during January and February, 1968, when work was being carried out on a short extension to the main runway. Its length was consequently reduced by 300 feet.

Up to 20th February this year there have been only eight diversions due to weather. Incidentally, in 1968, 226 aircraft were diverted into Glasgow. On the other hand, Prestwick, during the 12 days when it was handling a proportion of Glasgow's diverted traffic, because of strikes, suffered from weather diversions as a result of strong cross-winds. This can be affirmed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, who was diverted into Glasgow one evening, or by the Deputy Chairman of the British Airports Authority, who was diverted back to Glasgow one morning. Other flights have been diverted back to Glasgow, because of bad weather at Prestwick.

Some of our critics appear to think that we still operate from Renfrew. The change from Renfrew to Abbotsinch has brought about a tremendous improvement, due to four factors. First, we are further upwind at Abbotsinch, away from the city and, therefore, less subject to smoke. Secondly, flight approaches are better and aircraft can come in lower. Thirdly, our modern lighting and instrument landing system allow aircraft to operate in worse weather conditions. Fourthly, the creation of smokeless zones by Glasgow City Corporation has lifted the fog from Abbotsinch, but left it in the heads of many of our critics.

I want to deal now with the statement, referred to earlier, made in reply to my Question my my right hon. Friend. The closing part said: No division of functions can, however, be completely rigid and the Government will continue to have regard to the merits of individual cases".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd Feb., 1968; Vol. 759, c. 174.] In my view, Glasgow is an outstanding example. It would seem from certain recent happenings that the Board of Trade intends to implement the statement as though Glasgow Airport had only a primary rôle and that any traffic we receive in our secondary rôle, for example occasional non-scheduled long-haul traffic, must be directed to Prestwick.

On the other hand, the Board of Trade seem to make no attempt to direct traffic going into Prestwick to Glasgow, even though that traffic could fall within what is defined as Glasgow's primary rôle. For example, two weeks ago the Celtic football team travelled from Prestwick on a Laker Airways BAC 111, although that company has always used Glasgow Airport in the past. Why the change, particularly when it was a Glasgow football team? Similarly, on Monday 12th March, the Italian A.C. Milan football team arrived at Prestwick from Milan. I assume that the Board of Trade must have given authority for the landing. Again, why? Surely a journey from Italy is not an international flight, particularly when B.E.A. are operating their aircraft as far as Ankara in Turkey.

In Glasgow, we have no objection to these flights taking place since they can quite reasonably be considered as meeting Prestwick's secondary rôle as outlined in the statement of 22nd February. At the same time, the Board of Trade is diverting to Prestwick operators such as Wardair, Canada, which has used Abbots-inch for two years, despite the fact that it wants to do a small proportion of its flights this year from Glasgow. This matter was brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State four weeks ago, and I am sure that it is receiving his closest attention. We expect a favourable reply from him very soon.

An important issue is involved in this part of the argument. Everyone interested in the proper growth of inter-line traffic, which involves traffic changing between one type of carrier and another type, must understand that the growth of aviation in Scotland will be stifled if airline traffic is restricted by virtue of the physical separation of the airports and the rigid allocation of rôles. Many incoming tourists wish to travel further in Scotland, but if they are forced to land at Prestwick almost the only air service open to them is a return journey to the United States.

If, however, they can land at Glasgow Airport, they can travel easily by train, sea or bus to any other part of Scotland or they can contribute to the support of the Highlands and Islands services by using the air routes to the outer islands. No city in Scotland presents such a variety of choice in routes and objectives. Encouragement of this inter-line traffic is vital. Discouragement, such as appears to exist at Government level, can compel people to bypass Scotland and add to the overcrowding at Heathrow, which will reach saturation much sooner than we are prepared for it.

Why is Glasgow being singled out for discrimination such as I have pinpointed when no other municipal airport in the country suffers the risk of having operators who wish to use them being directed to a State airport administered by a London-based Authority? During the discussions with the Ministry of Aviation pending the acquisition of the airport at Renfrew, it was implied that it would not be suitable for trans-Atlantic operations.

As a reaction to a specific statement by the then Lord Provost, the Ministry of Aviation advised the corporation that, should they wish to extend the airport for trans-Atlantic operations, they would have to do so at their own expense. There was at that time no mention of specific political interference with any intentions of the coporation, which was given the fullest assurances when it accepted the burden of operating an airport that developments at Glasgow could keep pace with world developments in aircraft construction and operation.

If these assurances had to be honoured at Government level, then adequate runway length was essential, not for trans-Atlantic operations, but for existing users, such as B.E.A., whose Trident II, according to the Ministry of Technology, requires 9,000 feet for a fully-loaded take-off in certain circumstances.

Safety considerations, therefore, led the Corporation to the view that Glasgow Airport required maximum runway length for both take-off and landing, and this need brought them ultimately into contact with the Scottish Office, because their application of 19th April, 1968, to Renfrew County Council to fill in a piece of ground at the end of the runway was called in by the Secretary of State for Scotland on 19th June, 1968, for decision by him.

I regret that no Minister from the Scottish Office has found it convenient to be present today, although I had an apology from a junior Scottish Minister about his inability to be here.

After what I have described, there followed a lengthy exchange of letters between the corporation and the Secretary of State, extending to 20th January, 1969, and the matter was concluded only a few weeks ago when the corporation was granted permission for a restricted development of the runway, much below the 9,000 feet regarded by the Minister of Technology as being safe in all circumstances.

As I have shown, we had 10 months of squabbling over this matter. We are told that the mills of God grind slowly. Obviously, other mills grind far more slowly. This clutter of Parliamentarians in the province of air transport provokes thought and requires examination. We have seen fit to deal with road and rail. Can we repeat the process with aviation?

At present, the air transport set-up is complex. The Board of Trade is responsible for the smaller airports, plus the one at Edinburgh, which that city refused to acquire; perhaps it is now glad it did, when it sees what has been happening to Glasgow. Then we have the municipal airports like Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow. As far as I can discover, Government intervention in the affairs of the first three is negligible. They are all English. Not so with Glasgow, as we have been discovering to our cost.

Then there is the London-based British Airports Authority in whose bosom Prestwick now snugly lies; State administered. If this concept is sound for Prestwick, why be selfish and not build on a broader base with a real British airports authority embracing small airports—the Board of Trade would not be very sorry to lose them—taking in the municipal airports and so producing a real authority with a national and international outlook and policy?

4.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Rodgers Mr William Rodgers , Stockton-on-Tees

We are accustomed to the splendid partisanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) when Glasgow Airport is involved. It is less than five months since we had an opportunity to discuss this matter on the Adjournment.

I was interested in all that my hon Friend had to say, but I thought that a number of his earlier remarks were directed less to me than to the world at large. He would be a tremendous success in the advertising industry because his advocacy for Glasgow could not be rivalled by any commercial agency.

I agreed with most of what he said in the early part of his speech. Glasgow is a first-rate airport. My only quarrel might be that he seemed to suggest that it is in some way not flourishing. The contrary is the case. It is not my wish on this occasion to follow him into making comparisons between Prestwich and Abbotsinch. It is worth recording, however, that the number of scheduled passenger flights in the week ending 15th March of this year from Abbotsinch was 227, while the number from Prestwich was 63. Thus, if there is any cream going, one can hardly say that Glasgow has not been getting its fair share. I find it impossible to believe that as long as the hon. Gentleman is its advocate Glasgow will not do exceedingly well in regard to competition.

In passing, and I returned only this week from the United States, I would say that the comparisons made of the distances between Abbotsinch and Glasgow and Prestwick and Glasgow are not overwhelming. It takes one and a quarter hours to travel between Kennedy Airport in New York and Newark—the journey for anyone arriving on an international flight who may wish to go by internal line from Newark—whereas there is only an extra 50 minutes from Prestwick to Glasgow, although the distance is greater. I do not believe that for anyone flying into Prestwick there is a tremendous impediment if he has to continue his journey in aircraft flying into Abbotsinch.

We should recognise that the statement made by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade on 22nd February, 1968, represents the working text as we see it for decisions, in so far as we can make them, about the use of Prestwick and Abbotsinch. The fundamental fact is simple. We have two good airports, and there has been heavy investment in both. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is normally in favour of planning, will agree that it is reasonable for the Government to say that with these two airports there should be some division of labour, although on a flexible basis.

I would remind my hon. Friend, because this is the text, of what was said at the time. My right hon. Friend said that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland had taken note .. of the joint statement, recently reaffirmed to us, made by the Glasgow Corporation and the British Airports Authority on 9th March, 1967 that they regarded the two airports as complementary. That is the key—they are complementary. They have useful functions to perform, and if we are to use resources properly, we shall not go far wrong if we regard this statement, which embodies the agreement of the Glasgow Corporation itself, as our starting point.

That statement was made only a year ago. It embodied the views of the Glasgow Corporation. If Glasgow Corporation now takes a different view and wants to renegotiate its agreement with the British Airports Authority, that is the Corporation's affair and not ours. But as long as this agreement stands, and it has been endorsed by this House, it is only reasonable that we should expect it to be acted upon.

I agree that in his statement my right hon. Friend said: No division of functions can, however, be completely rigid and the Government will continue to have regard to the merits of individual cases."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd February, 1968; Vol. 759, c. 173–4.] That is precisely the position now. Except in so far as this is the text on which we work, there is no discouragement and there is no discrimination.

I am aware of the case of Wardair, and it may be helpful to my hon. Friend if I explain the present position. We made clear to Wardair, when it made its application, the position as it stood, and we drew its attention to the fact that no division of functions could be completely rigid. We asked Wardair whether it wished an exception to our broad policy to be considered, and said that if this was so it should let us know the grounds upon which such an exception should be made. No reply has been received from Wardair, so the Board of Trade has not been asked to give the case any consideration. Furthermore, on 6th March, Wardair forwarded a schedule of flights planned for the summer of 1969 of which eight are planned to operate from Scotland, all at Prestwick. I give this explanation in case my hon. Friend is in doubt. The ball does not rest in our court in this respect.

There are other applications that we shall consider from time to time, but we must bear in mind the facilities which are available at Glasgow, the present length of runway and whether it is always adequate for the purpose of some longdistance operations. I do not apologise for returning to this. We must take the agreement of a year ago as representing a suitable division of labour except in so far as special conditions arise where it is desirable to make exemptions on some specific and clear grounds. At the moment Abbotsinch has the great bulk of traffic, certainly in terms of scheduled flights.

The question of the runway has been discussed in the House from time to time. My hon. Friend is aware of the meeting which the Secretary of State for Scotland had with Glasgow Corporation on 7th February. It seemed to me that that represented a successful outcome of this matter, but matters of planning are very properly for the Secretary of State and not for the Board of Trade. If Glasgow Corporation wishes to reopen the matter, no doubt it will do so with the Secretary of State so far as it can and at the proper time, but I do not think any useful purpose would be served at present by departing from the understanding reached on that occasion or disputing the decision which the Secretary of State has made.

My hon. Friend raised an interesting but much wider question involving the structure of airports administration in this country. He quite rightly said that some airports remain in Board of Trade management, some have gone to the British Airports Authority and others are in municipal control. I was rather surprised to hear him say that we might consider a single airports authority, which would involve Glasgow giving up control of Abbotsinch. I shall certainly bear the point in mind, but it would be contrary to a policy which we have regarded as broadly right. It is that municipalities should have the opportunity, if they wish, of operating airports in their vicinity.

Glasgow has done very well with Abbotsinch, and I should be surprised if it were the view of Glasgow that it now wishes to give up control to any other authority. In the long run we hope that airports will be operated either by municipal authorities, where they wish, or, alternatively, by the British Airports Authority. The transfer of airports from the Board of Trade is continuing the whole time.

I am always delighted to share these occasions with my hon. Friend. I am sure it is right and desirable that he should remind us of the very important rôle of Abbotsinch. We fully appreciate it. We welcome the progress that has been made. We recognise what it can do for the development of Scotland, and we do not wish to discourage a full and proper rôle for it. Our view would be that Prestwick and Abbotsinch can each share in air transport, which is going ahead at a very high rate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.