– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 13th March 2023.
To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they are having with airlines about strengthening regional connectivity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain following the collapse of Flybe.
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rogan and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.
My Lords, connectivity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is currently very strong and has largely recovered to 2019 levels. This includes several competing services between Belfast and London, the public service obligation from Derry/Londonderry to London, and routes from Northern Ireland to several cities throughout Great Britain.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a fervent supporter of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does not a strong union require good, efficient and reliable air services between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country, not least in order to assist in the great work being done by the Northern Ireland tourist board in promoting the cultural and environmental glories of the Province, which are not as well-known and widely appreciated as they should be? I know my noble friend understands the anxiety created in Northern Ireland and elsewhere by the sudden collapse of Flybe at the end of January. Will she and the Government do everything possible to help regional airlines increase flights and keep fares down as far as possible for all those travelling to and from this most important part of our country?
I completely agree with my noble friend. I have been to Northern Ireland as a tourist, and it is truly fabulous. On the recent collapse of Flybe, in November 2022 Flybe was transporting only 5.9% of passengers, so I am delighted to say that other airlines have now stepped up and by the end of April we expect that all Flybe routes will be picked up by other carriers.
Is the Minister aware that Aer Lingus has pulled out of the Belfast-London route and that there are regular cancellations by British Airways, particularly of the early flights on Monday morning? The reduction in the number of flights from Belfast to London and back is a significant problem.
I will have to take that back to the department because I am not aware of a significant reduction in the number of flights; indeed, I expect them to be back to where they were by the end of April. I looked at the prices a couple of weeks ago, and it was possible to book an easyJet flight on a Monday morning for £22, which I feel is very reasonable. I know that BA has had a few cancellations recently, but I met with it this morning and we discussed how to reduce those as we head into the summer.
As someone who uses that air connection weekly, I remind the Minister that there was a £5.7 million investment in connectivity between Northern Ireland and Great Britain during the Covid lockdown in May 2020 and since then, Flybe and the Belfast-London, London-Belfast Aer Lingus flights have ceased to operate. What discussions will she have with other airlines on filling the slots, and with Aer Lingus about reinstating its flights between Belfast and London and London and Belfast using Emerald Airlines, which undertakes carrier flights for it to other cities in Britain?
Aer Lingus flights had to cease because of the wet-leasing arrangements it was using, which it carried on for much longer than the Government would normally allow. However, I am delighted to say that Aer Lingus’s partner in IAG, British Airways, picked up the services so there is no loss in connectivity. Of course, we will warmly welcome Aer Lingus back to that route if it is able to sort out the UK-registered aircraft it would need to operate the route.
My Lords, as the Minister said, Flybe failed in 2020 and 2023, which highlights the need to maintain consumer confidence. To do that, customers must be reassured that they have the right to the highest levels of financial protection and full refunds when things go wrong. Last year, the Department for Transport consulted on proposals to reduce consumer rights for domestic flights. Do the Government intend to pursue these plans? In view of the Windsor Framework, will flights between Great Britain and Northern Ireland remain subject to EU rules on compensation?
The Government did indeed consult on a wide range of issues relating to consumers and aviation. We are still considering the response to that consultation and we will publish it in due course.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that speeding up Heathrow expansion would provide more opportunities for Northern Ireland companies and open further links to global business, and that new links and flights would encourage competition and provide Northern Ireland with better and cheaper connections to the rest of the UK and the world?
Any expansion at Heathrow is of course a matter for the airport itself; it is a private company and will be making the decision as to whether to expand. However, there are many London airports. I was at Luton only last week, where a brand new train service operates directly into the airport, which means that Luton will be 30 minutes away from central London. There is a lot of opportunity around London and, of course, we would like regional airlines to make the most of it.
My Lords, I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place today, and after the HS2 Question on Friday, I expect the noble Lord, Lord Davies, is too. The collapse of Flybe in January was devastating news for staff as well as the wider supply chain and those employed in industries reliant on its transport links. What steps are the Government taking to encourage further investment in Northern Ireland? Are they working with other operators to unlock new opportunities? What further work has been done to reduce the inequalities that domestic airlines face when paying double air passenger duty?
As the noble Baroness will be aware, the Government announced a reduction in domestic air passenger duty. That comes into force from April 2023—next month—and will be a 50% cut in domestic air passenger duty. As I explained, we work with many of the regional airlines to consider regional connectivity. We will be looking at what we can do around slots but, as I said, services to Northern Ireland in particular are pretty much back to where they were in 2019.
My Lords, in drawing attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, may I ask my noble friend, when she looks at the case for regional connectivity—be it with Northern Ireland or Scotland—to ensure that the Government have a very strong bias towards protecting those vital slots in some of our larger airports?
My noble friend will be well aware that the Government have limited levers when it comes to slots. However, there are some things that we can do. Slots are allocated by an independent slots co-ordinator. We set out in Flightpath to the Future that we would consult on some elements of slots reform. We still intend to that and, in doing so, we will consider very carefully regional connectivity and how we can ensure that slots are available.
My Lords, I want to take my noble friend back to the question of slots. There is a lot of concern that when an airline fails the slots are often sold off at an enormous price, which excludes other, smaller airlines from taking up the routes that that airline has had to leave behind. Will she confirm that the Government are interested in that and will do everything they can to deter that practice?
I am not able to confirm that we will do everything we can to deter that practice because, of course, historic rights to slots are an asset and when an airline fails, those slots can be transferred for a sum to another party and that money can be used to pay creditors. What I can commit to my noble friend is that, for example, the Flybe slots are part of a competition remedy and cover specific routes, which means that any operator can apply to the slots co-ordinator to take up those slots for those specific routes.
My Lords, I do not seem to be able to get an answer from any other Minister to my question regarding the Belfast to London and Belfast to EU route, so perhaps the noble Baroness can answer it. Can she explain why, given that you can get duty free from Dublin to London, you cannot get it from Belfast to London? Indeed, nor can you get it from Belfast to the EU, because the EU does not allow it. Will she come back to me with a real answer on this—even if it is one the Government do not want to admit to?
I am not sure I am going to be able to help the noble Baroness any more than other Ministers have, as it is beyond my departmental brief. However, I will pass her concerns on to the Treasury.
My Lords, while this Question is on the collapse of Flybe, I ask the Minister to pass on congratulations to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on HMG finding a buyer, with no risk whatever to the taxpayer, for Silicon Valley Bank, which collapsed.
I am sure all noble Lords will agree that the Government acted incredibly swiftly in a very difficult situation, and we were all very pleased with the outcome.