Flying Schools — [Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:07 pm on 12 September 2023.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:07, 12 September 2023

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate Tim Loughton on leading it, setting the scene extremely well and outlining the issues.

I give special thanks to my hon. Friend Ian Paisley, whose son is training to be a pilot, and I hope that one day we will both be in a plane of which he is the pilot. We look forward to that accomplishment. My hon. Friend put forward our request that trainee pilots be part of the same system as students, because it is a simple system and easier to regulate. The wherewithal to do that is already there. Being a pilot seems to be a vocation. If we do not make preparations now, we could find ourselves in a position whereby we might not have the number of pilots we need.

As someone who flies twice a week to get to the House, I have the greatest respect for our pilots and airlines. It is important that we do more across the UK to better support and fund flying schools for trainee pilots, so today’s debate is very important. I want to make a case and give some specifics for Northern Ireland, as I always do.

My constituency, which is rich and diverse, has its own flying clubs to train pilots, and we are fortunate to have them training at this very moment. One of the flying schools in Strangford is called the Ulster Flying Club, located in Newtownards. I have had a relationship with it throughout the years I have been a councillor, a Member of the Legislative Assembly and an MP. The club holds open days every year and other events, and it is very much an integral part of the community. It trains trainee pilots to be pilots.

I know of one constituent who just completed 10 flying lessons when he was only 13. That was because a provisional pilot’s licence was available. It is often the first step in becoming a commercial airline pilot. It is just fantastic that so many training grounds offer an opportunity in aviation for those of all ages who are interested. My own son was interested at one time. It may have been a “flight of fancy”, if I can use that terminology, but at one time he wished to be a pilot. I think what put him off was the cost factor. Also, he met his future wife and she had different ideas. It was one or other of those things that changed his opinion, but the fact was that the opportunity to be a trainee pilot at Ulster Flying Club in Newtownards was one of the options considered.

Whether a provisional pilot’s licence or a pilot’s licence is purely for leisure and recreation or because of professional interest, it is great that such openings are available for our young people. I encourage them all to take up the opportunities. I congratulate the Ulster Flying Club in Newtownards on its clear commitment to try to make that happen for all—not just for the constituents of Strangford but for those further afield. I was in contact with the British Airline Pilots’ Association ahead of this debate, and it made me aware of its role in protecting young, aspiring pilots and supporting the aviation industry in general.

To be specific, I agree that we must have better financial protection for trainee pilots, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham set out so well in his introduction. In 2023, three UK flying schools have collapsed, which is devastating not only for the aviation industry but for the trainee pilots, who in some cases have paid tens of thousands of pounds in advance fees. The hon. Gentleman gave a number of examples of that. One that I read about in the information I was sent was of a young girl who had paid some £90,000, which is an incredible loss. It is quite unsustainable for any young person and for the family—the bank of mum and dad—to stand over that. They then have to face the fact of the vocation they had chosen not being achievable.

There is absolutely no doubt that we as policymakers in this place have a responsibility to support young people in their career choices, especially one where the financial aspect is so huge. The smaller airfields—such as the one in my constituency of Strangford—support thousands of skilled jobs, including those of engineers, air traffic controllers and trainee instructors. All these things have to be paid for. I am very fortunate that the Ulster Flying Club has such member strength and is so strong. It has lots of adult pilots who have their licences and it has a strong youth section as well. But it takes money to keep it all going, so we must invest in these facilities and not risk their closure altogether.

BALPA has recommended that the Government regulate such that an ATO’s ongoing approval requires it to take advance payments or deposits from consumers in instalments no greater than £5,000, or perhaps 5% of the total course cost at a time. That is something to look at. I look to the Minister to consider these proposals and see whether something can be done. Can this be regulated? Can it be done in a different way? Clearly, if action is not taken, we have a severe problem. As stated by other Members, the financial burden is just huge, and to ask a young, aspiring pilot to risk that after the closure already of three schools is a massive ask for anyone and for their family.

I have always been a big supporter of encouraging young people to pursue their dreams in terms of their careers. We as parliamentarians in this House and also as parents—as a grandparent in my case—have a duty, I believe, to encourage our young people to do so. How many times have we been at a careers event, or how many times have we been speaking in a school, where we have encouraged young people to achieve their goals? If they have a dream—a goal that they wish to achieve—we encourage them to reach out and grasp it. If we say that, we have to mean it in this place as well, which is why we look to the Minister for help.

We have the second largest national aerospace industry in the world—after the United States—here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Whether our flying schools are teaching young people to fly purely as a hobby or preparing them for a life in which they are flying planes for some of the biggest airlines globally, this industry must be supported by the Government in order to ensure that young people—our future and, indeed, the Government’s future—are not let down but have the financial means to learn, without the worry of closure.

I very much support what has been put forward. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and look forward to those of the shadow Ministers. We look to our Minister for a response that gives us the reassurance that we can then give to our constituents.