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Clause 18 - Licence conditions

Part of Civil Aviation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:30 pm on 1st March 2012.

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Photo of Pat Glass Pat Glass Labour, North West Durham 1:30 pm, 1st March 2012

I support the amendments. I hope the Minister will explain how the passenger voice, satisfaction and experience will be taken into account. Airlines have a direct relationship with passengers through purchasing tickets or a tour agency. However, that direct relationship is not always shared between passengers and airports, or between passengers and the CAA. The agendas of passengers and airlines do not always match up. Sometimes there is a conflict, usually in the low-cost airline sector, and some chief executives of low-cost airlines do not always help themselves. However, we need to recognise that the agendas of the passenger and the airline often are in alignment. If the CAA is not to have a secondary duty to take into account the views of airlines, I hope the Minister will tell us how she proposes that that passenger voice be captured and heard.

I want to explore the benefits of the CAA being able to focus licences on the specific experiences of passengers at airports, which amendment 18 would help us to achieve. The Transport Committee considered this issue in detail and urged that specifically structured licences to address key areas of passenger satisfaction, including immigration and baggage handling, be considered. I am sure we are all familiar with the frustration, anger and stress experienced at airports: we arrive at one airport, and our luggage arrives at a different airport; we arrive at an airport and our luggage arrives at the same airport, but at a different time; or we are stuck in a long queue waiting to get through security. I remember having an awful experience at an airport where five flights were about to close and there was one security queue. The tension and anxiety was made worse because I was on my own. Crises are always better when they are shared. [Laughter.] I really could entertain the Committee all afternoon with my personal experiences at airports. The Committee will be glad to know that I will not do that,  but many of these issues are best demonstrated through case studies, or by people’s personal experiences. The Minister will understand that in the current economic situation, many families face the dilemma of whether they can afford a holiday, and whether they decide they can or not, they really need one. They save hard all year for a well earned break. They deserve good and improving treatment and a pleasant, not an anxious, experience at airports.

The Government have cut 6,500 staff from the UK Border Agency, with 1,500 going from the border force, including 800 this year. I think we can all remember the ill-tempered debates in the House about the relaxation of security checks at our borders last summer. I not sure that anyone yet knows how many people came into the UK without checks, who they are, or what border controls were ultimately agreed on. The bottom line is that the public expect proper immigration controls to be in place. Passengers expect sufficient staff to prevent the massive delays at airports that damage our image and impact on investment and business competitiveness, but also that we get the balance right. I went through Singapore airport recently. It was not until I was in the departure gate that I realised I had not been checked at all—coat, bag, boots and so on. It may well be that Singapore airport has output-based security now, and looked at me and decided I was not a security threat, but I did not know that. I felt incredibly insecure getting on that plane. We need the right provision in place so that we do not have huge queues and damage our country’s reputation, while ensuring that people know they are safe to fly.

The Bill is right to make the primary duty of the CAA to air transport users, but the Minister needs to explain how passengers will benefit from the Bill. As it stands, it is not specific enough about how that objective will be met. We know that very long delays caused by UKBA checks annoy people. Poor baggage handling annoys and upsets people, but what really hurts is long delays and cancellations due to adverse weather, volcanic ash or other external factors, particularly when they could have been planned for, avoided or handled better. Service recovery is a major area of dissatisfaction. It is important that licences take account of that.

Evidence to the Transport Committee included an Office for National Statistics omnibus survey conducted in February 2010, which revealed that passengers were largely satisfied with their experience at airports but were not equally satisfied with all aspects of service. The areas of least satisfaction—those scoring less than 75%—concerned information provided on what goods can be brought into the country; destinations served by nearest airports; baggage collection; and cost of flights. In its own survey of passenger satisfaction at airports, the CAA discovered that immigration waiting times were also an area of concern. Less than 70% of passengers at London’s three major airports were satisfied with immigration services, meaning that 30% were highly dissatisfied. Only 8% of the passengers surveyed were getting through security checks in less than 20 minutes.

Accordingly, the Transport Committee recommended:

“Where possible, airport licences should be structured so that they address key areas of passenger dissatisfaction. Immigration and baggage handling are two services which are not within the remit of airports but strongly impact on passengers' satisfaction with airports. If the Government is serious about improving the  passenger experience at airports, it should consider, in parallel, how to address improving service standards by other airport service providers, such as UKBA and private baggage handling companies.”

How does the Minister plan to use the Bill to tackle these issues? Can she talk us through how she intends to define passenger satisfaction and/or the interests of passengers? How will that be captured and how will she be held to account on this?

I think I have already said this, but it is worth repeating that the regulatory regime governing airports should be reformed, with passengers at its core. The CAA’s primary duty should be to promote the interests of passengers. That was the intention of the legislation when the previous Government drafted it in developing these reforms, and I am pleased that the current Government have accepted this approach. However, how is the CAA to weigh the often differing interests of current versus future air transport users? Can the Minister explain in more detail how the proposed aviation consumer advocate panel will work in practice? In particular, how will it identify, represent and promote the interests of passengers and how will it relate to the regulatory process?

Another key recommendation of the Transport Committee, following its detailed inquiry into the failure of both Government and the industry adequately to prepare for and respond to the severe winter conditions in December 2010, was that airports should have in place passenger welfare plans. I cannot imagine how anyone would not think that a good idea. The awful experience faced by many passengers, particularly at Heathrow, demonstrated the need for the sector to up its game significantly on passenger welfare.