Airports: Heathrow — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 23rd January 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Tabled by Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will hold an inquiry into the operations of London Heathrow airport following the recent severe disruption.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative 3:30 pm, 23rd January 2013

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Forsyth, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, Heathrow has already incorporated all 14 recommendations of the 2011 independent Heathrow resilience inquiry into a £50 million improvement programme, including more snow clearance vehicles and improved operational command and control and passenger welfare procedures. These enabled Heathrow to reduce disruption significantly compared to 2010. Airlines have also improved their responses to severe weather. However, we are asking them to explain why aircraft de-icing problems occurred at Heathrow and what improvements are needed.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative

I am grateful to my noble friend, but we will all have witnessed on the television the misery of passengers and, of course, the damage done to the UK's reputation. Is it not time for Heathrow to learn the lessons quickly so that we do not have these annual reports following what was, after all, a rather modest snowfall?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I agree that there has been some disappointment about performance at Heathrow, and my right honourable friend the Minister of State will be having a chat with its management. However, noble Lords will be well aware that TV loves to portray a bad news story. It is interesting that it did not portray the problems at other European airports, which were also very significant.

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not a question of de-icing or clearing the runways? British Airways comes on the television screens explaining proudly its problem that, "We run at 99% capacity. The slightest difference in allowing time between flights means that we have to cancel". It turned out in this case that one in 10 incoming flights was cancelled on one day, and that on another it was one in five. Is it not time that an airport that is trying to pretend that it is an international hub stops running at a rate of capacity that is clearly outwith its capabilities to sustain?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I think that the noble Baroness is suggesting that an extra runway would solve the problem. However, I should point out that Charles de Gaulle airport experienced a cancellation rate of 40% despite having four runways.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I have managed all sorts of transport terminals and routes. The only way to deal with the problems at Heathrow would have been to put in a contingency plan which reduced in advance the number of flights taking off and landing. Proper contingency planning is needed so that passengers are advised well in advance not to leave their homes, not to leave their hotels and not to sleep on the terminal floor. Will the Minister encourage the CAA and other aviation authorities to introduce such plans?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My noble friend is quite right in his analysis of a possible solution. Indeed, that is what happens. A committee called HADACAB determines whether we need to cancel some flights in advance in order to provide capacity to do things such as keep the runway clear. In addition, in future, as a result of the Civil Aviation Act 2012, the Civil Aviation Authority will be able to set resilience conditions on the operator's licence, but that will not be until April 2014.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales)

I am so sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was unable to ask this Question. That would have given me the opportunity to agree with him twice in consecutive days, which would be some kind of record as far as he and I are concerned.

As the Minister is so well briefed as to tell us what other European airports suffered delays, will he put in the Library an analysis of these problems, because north American airports, which have vastly more problems with snow than the UK, seem to keep planes flying through a great deal of it? It would be interesting to have a real, proper comparison.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the way I would explain the situation with regard to my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lady Browning is: out of the frying pan and into the fire.

As the noble Lord will understand, the meteorological conditions in north America are very different from those at Heathrow. It is interesting to note, however, that airports such as Zurich, Geneva and Basle also experienced cancellations.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Chair, Adoption Legislation Committee

My Lords, I was one of those held in Madrid because of BA's failure to take us on Friday. It re-booked us on Saturday, but again we were unable to fly BA. However, Iberia, closely connected with BA, had no problem whatever in taking us half an hour after the BA flight time. What is happening when a company such as Iberia, closely connected with BA, can fly and carry passengers without difficulty when BA cannot?

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I suggest that the noble and learned Baroness writes to BA for an explanation.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, I think I can keep going. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, my noble friend said that Charles de Gaulle has four runways, but the comparison she was making was in capacity. We would like to know what percentage of capacity Charles de Gaulle is running at compared with Heathrow.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Lords Spokesperson (Department for Transport), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I believe that Charles de Gaulle runs at about 75% capacity.