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Dundee Airport

1.30 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): I am delighted to have secured this debate and to bring to the Government's attention the need to explore all avenues to promote the development of Dundee airport.

I have tried for some time following my contribution to the debate in this Chamber on regional aviation, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart), to focus on what can be done to increase the use of the important economic and transportation feature that serves Dundee and the surrounding areas of north Tayside, Angus and north-east Fife. I am happy to acknowledge the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) to ensure that the services at Dundee airport, which is in his constituency, are enhanced and improved.

I made it clear during the earlier debate on this matter that the economic viability of peripheral areas of the United Kingdom, such as Dundee, must be sustained by the Government in the face of a limited supply of regional airlines, a serious dearth of runway capacity in London for regional airports, and the overwhelming commercial pressure exerted by the buying power of large carriers to force smaller, domestic and regional operators out of London. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to these issues, which are vital if we are to ensure that regional aviation and airports such as Dundee have a viable future.

I am pleased to pay tribute to the staff of Dundee airport, the economic development department of the city council, which manages the council facility, and the major carrier at Dundee airport, ScotAirways, for their vital contribution to the successful establishment and smooth operation of Dundee's vital air link to London. I was heartened by recent press statements confirming ScotAirways' commitment to the vital Dundee transport connection, and hope that one of the outcomes of this debate will be the strengthening of this travel option.

I am not here to promote any commercial or business interest. My only motive in seeking the debate was to ensure the best interests of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West. Mr. Winterton—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. The hon. Gentleman may address me as Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I should be honoured if he would do so.

Mr. Luke : I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The topic of this debate is critical to the area that I represent. Dundee airport is a focal point for commuters who travel on business and for leisure from an area about 486 miles from the metropolis, which in European terms is on the periphery of Europe. It is part of an economic jigsaw that has been painstakingly put together to ensure the economic well-being and future prosperity of an area that suffered more than most from the recessions that ravaged the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s.

The important economic role of all airports was emphasised by my right hon., Friend the Deputy Prime Minister during a speech in March 2000, when he

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identified airports as being vital to the economy and the key to the Government's integrated transport policy. He said that

As a Dundee Member, it is important to make the case—as I do at every opportunity—for more government assistance to recreate Dundee's industrial, commercial and service sector base. It is important also to ensure that these different areas of enterprise and employment are supported by a far better transport infrastructure than that in place to allow these activities to achieve the full potential that is open to them.

The airport that serves my area had, like so many others, humble grass-strip beginnings. It was fostered by the local authority for some time for the benefit of the community and now has an anchor of four daily flights from Dundee to London City. The growth of the airport has been fostered by funding from the European regional development fund, and grants previously provided by the then Scottish Office and the Government. We must review the money that has been spent on Dundee airport over the years—about £14 million at 2002 prices—to ensure that the investment begins to pay off.

Considerable progress has been made and, although the estimated 45,000 passengers using the airport this year—last year, it was 47,000—may be few compared with figures for other Scottish airports, it is impressive for the airport's size. Further, when set against the potential passengers travelling between the greater London area and the Dundee airport catchment area, the figure could be in excess of 250,000. There is therefore much to do. Estimated direct peak-time access to London could double the figure of 45,000 over a short period.

To achieve the best returns for the money provided by the Government and the European Union, we need to capitalise on our connections. We must achieve a breakthrough to gain more internal flights in the UK, and greater access to short and medium-haul direct flights to European destinations. Only thus will we ensure the airport's long-term viability. To attain that goal we need the help of the Government, and for them to become more involved,.

As figures show, the service has been performing well and has the potential to be developed, but since 11 September the number of people using the service has dropped. That was confirmed by the chairman of ScotAirways when my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West and I met him in Parliament last month to put the case for the expansion of services from Dundee. He said that now was a period for retrenchment, rather than expansion, and since then ScotAirways has cut proposed flights from Inverness and Aberdeen, and all flights from Glasgow to London City airport. We are consequently lucky to have managed to maintain our London services intact.

I hope to ensure from this debate that once we are over the worst effects of the downturn in air travel since 11 September we will be in a position to begin to build for the future. For Dundee airport, that means certain things, and one is to capture a prime-time slot at peak periods during morning and evening arrivals at London

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City airport. The Government must do all that they can to aid ScotAirways and Dundee airport to achieve that. Much play was made in the regional aviation debate, held on 31 October, of the use of PSOs—public service obligation orders—to gain prime access to London airports. Under EU regulations, only two criteria can be used by the Government to intervene and justify imposing such an order. The first is to secure a route to an airport serving a peripheral or development region if the route is considered vital for the economic development of that region. Although Dundee fits that criteria, because of the different elements that must be matched to gain access to the PSO, I do not believe that it would achieve such status through that route. A second route is one in which the Government can, where they feel it necessary, serve a PSO to maintain a service that would not otherwise exist.

No case has been made for the second criteria for any routes between a regional airport and London. Dundee's circumstances are heavily centred on a PSO being imposed by government to ensure a service at prime time, which would not otherwise exist. If it cannot fit that service, it will fit the next consideration that I shall address. I publicly call for a PSO to be served to secure a prime slot for Dundee airport, given its disadvantaged status.

Once we can increase the number of flights coming to London City airport, we must widen the UK flight options open to travellers from Dundee airport. Gaining access to a regional or London hub airport must be high on a joint development agenda to be created between government, local authorities and Members of Parliament.

Of the estimated 250,000 possible journeys that I mentioned, many will be made to west London via Heathrow. It is assumed that many passengers will want to progress to international destinations not available from other Scottish regional airports. The Minister might remember, or be aware of, the Manchester-Dundee flight, which operated until 1998 and carried about 10,000 passengers annually. It was a very useful connection that could have been developed. Unfortunately, it collapsed, and we wish that we could work with government to recreate that sort of link and to help to promote it.

A third and vital element in the game plan is for Dundee to gain access to short and medium-haul European destinations. Holiday charter flights to Spain and Jersey have operated in the past. Sadly, those no longer run, although they proved popular. Operation costs played against them. Currently, we are trying to gain access to Schipol airport in Amsterdam. For a small airport, that is a difficult agenda to achieve and maintain. That is the final goal that we need to work for, given that very soon Dundee will witness the completion of an international departure lounge, financed by the Government and the European Union. I hope that, working together, we can ensure that this new facility, the vital next stage in the development of Dundee airport, becomes a vibrant and much-used starting point for both business and leisure air travellers going abroad. Anything that the Minister, his Department and its officials can do to help will be extremely useful.

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If the Minister is to repeat the well-publicised whistle-stop tour of regional airports that he conducted last October, will he take time out to travel to Dundee? He will be made very welcome. He will add to our passenger figures, which will also be very welcome, and will see at first hand the progress that we are making in the development of Dundee airport. I think that he will be surprised at the quality of service there, which could be replicated in the City.

I reiterate some of the points made by Dundee city council in its submission last year in response to the "Future of Aviation" consultation paper, which are pertinent to this debate. The council and the departments involved made the case for more direct access at appropriate times to London City airport in order to maximise the current service uptake and to ensure the health of Dundee's business, community and economy. I must stress the influence of the weather—during the storm on Monday, my arduous journey from Dundee to London took well in excess of 14 hours and involved trains, planes and buses. There is no viable surface alternative for business people trying to make vital connections.

Slot availability and slot pricing are hampering the development of our services. With the continued growth in slot demand and free market allocation of London slots, there is a long-term threat to our continued access to London if no Government action is taken. Protection of slots for London locally require a combination of regulations, as I have already said, and a carefully conceived and managed increase in the provision in the capital of runway capacity for regional access. Finally, the representations made by the council underlined the point made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in March 2000. The integrity of the UK economy requires the interests of the regional and national economies to be given priority over the maximisation of profits by airports and large airlines.

When the Minister replies to the debate and when he frames the aviation Bill, which will be introduced later this year, I hope that he will take on board the points raised by me, the city council and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West. I also hope that you will find time in your busy schedule to meet us, officers from Dundee city council and, if possible, the management of Dundee airport, to take the agenda forward, whether in Dundee—you are always welcome to visit us there—or in London.

I am glad that I have had the opportunity of this debate to put the case for the fuller development of Dundee airport.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I know that I would be very welcome in Dundee, but I think that the hon. Gentleman was speaking to the Minister. The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) has properly and courteously sought the permission of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), the Minister and the occupant of the Chair to participate briefly in the debate, and I am happy to call him.

1.45 pm

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak for a couple of minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the

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Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke). When he arrived in the House, he replaced a very active Member of Parliament, who is now a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Since that time, he has displayed not only a determination to stamp his ideas on the House, but an admirable understanding of the problems that face Dundee. That awareness comes from his many years in local authority service and his responsibility for economic development during that period. I have been happy to support him.

I join my hon. Friend in hoping that my hon. Friend the Minister will go on an early jaunt—we shall try to make it a jaunt, although perhaps I should call it a visit—to Dundee. In any event, the Minister will certainly be welcome, and we shall take the opportunity to highlight the necessity and the benefits for Dundee of developing the airport.

Over the past 20 years, I have used every method of transport to get to this building, but the ScotAirways service to London City airport is by far and away the best. I leave my office in Portcullis house—with the Whip's permission, it must be said—at 10 to 3 on Thursday afternoon, and I am sitting having my tea in my front room, 426 miles away, at half-past 5. ScotAirways is to be congratulated on its remarkable service, which has changed my life and those of many people in Dundee.

The airport is also important because we are trying to develop Dundee as a biotechnology centre for Tayside. One can meet professors, academics and business people on the plane, and on one flight up from London City airport there was a woman who was anxious to get to Dundee because her daughter was having a baby in Ninewells hospital. Just as we flew over the hospital and approached Dundee, the pilot was happy to announce that the woman had become a granny. I am sure that she would much rather have been at the hospital, but that is just one example of the type of person that one meets on the flight.

It is important to compliment David Johnson, the airport manager, and his staff on their running of the airport. We are fortunate that ScotAirways has made it the engineering base and the ticket and reservation centre for the whole company, and we appreciate that. Doris and her team also do a marvellous job.

The flight is a pleasant experience, bearing in mind that it is such a small airline. One cabin supervisor, Kathy Milne, who was an experienced flight attendant, drummed the need to pay attention to detail into her successor, Vivian Harper, who drummed it into all the cabin staff. The flight is a really pleasant experience, which I hope that the Minister will soon enjoy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am delighted to ask the Minister to reply to a debate for the second time this morning.

1.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I am delighted to be able to accept your invitation to respond to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke) on securing this important debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who has been a strong advocate for his local airport and constituents. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East is certainly making his mark as an advocate for the people in his area, and I congratulate him on the calm and sensible way in which he conducted the debate.

My hon. Friend made a strong case for air links to London, and no one could deny that they would help improve the economic fortune of the area. He also made a good case for prime slots into London. He almost suggested that the Government might be able to allocate slots into London, but we have no role in that allocation. Much as we might wish to allocate some favourable slots for the airline from Dundee into one of the major London airports, we cannot do so. In recent months, however, British Airways has relinquished a large number of slots at Gatwick, and other airlines are bidding for them and taking them on. My hon. Friend should encourage his airline to take that option. He will appreciate that it is not within the gift of the Government; the initiative must come from the airline.

My hon. Friend asked about the public service order being placed on the airline. Indeed, he almost declared that it was his wish for the process to be carried out. We often wish things on behalf of our constituents, but the request must be made by the local authority, Dundee city council, or the Scottish Executive. Should such a request be made, it would be considered in the same way as the one made by the Scottish Executive for Inverness airport, which we are considering carefully. The Government are not minded generally to ring-fence slots or protect them because we believe that the marketplace works well. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, we may reconsider that policy.

I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned my well-publicised visit to regional airports. I was in Edinburgh yesterday and visited the fine airport there. I did not go to Dundee, but I would be happy to take what my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West called a jaunt. If we rearranged the word slightly, we could call it a junket.

I am intrigued to discover that my hon. Friend leaves this place on Thursday at 10 to 3. I see that the Government Whip has entered the Chamber. Perhaps I can put in an application to get away early on Thursday. I assure my hon. Friend that after 7 pm on a Thursday, there is not much in the way of public transport to Plymouth, let alone an air link. I usually arrive home at between midnight and 1 am.

Mr. Ross : So that I do not get lynched when I leave the Chamber, I should say that it happened only once.

Mr. Jamieson : I am glad that my hon. Friend has put that on the record. From now on, I shall keep a careful note of his voting record on Thursday afternoons.

I recognise the importance of good regional air links between Dundee and London. They provide spin-offs not only for the local economy but for the social life of the city. I appreciate that certain regions of the United Kingdom are worried that their slots are being threatened by commercial pressures and because of

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pressure on airport capacity, although in recent months that pressure has been somewhat reduced, particularly at Gatwick. Airport slots at London airports are allocated by the slot allocator, Airport Coordination Ltd. ACL allocates slots on a neutral, transparent and non-discriminatory basis, and its decisions are binding. The Government have no role in that process.

The allocation of airport slots derives from a combination of European and international air transport guidelines. As my hon. Friend said, Dundee services use London City airport, which is a co-ordinated airport, and uses the International Air Transport Association guidelines for slot allocation. It is also a prior permission airport and is constrained by the number of airport stands that it has. However, I am sure that my hon. Friends will be encouraged, as I am, by the fact that there are currently four daily services between Dundee and London City, with some flights, at least, at peak times of the day. I was also delighted to be informed that a fifth service will start in February. At London City airport, airlines are offered permission to land if they flew the relevant service in the previous season. Dundee should, if the market exists and the airline wants to continue flying that route, retain the access.

Mr. Luke : I am glad to hear that announcement. Does my hon. Friend agree that it gives an added advantage? If he has the opportunity to come to Dundee, there is an extra flight available.

Mr. Jamieson : My hon. Friend has been extremely persuasive, and on my next tour of regional airports I shall be giving the strongest consideration to the idea of going to Dundee, where I shall, I am sure, be given a fine reception by my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Dundee, West—if they can get off the Whip.

I want to say more about the protection of slots, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East rightly stressed. My Department is currently undertaking a policy review on options available for the protection of London airport slots for regional air services. We are examining the current mechanisms by which the Government could intervene to protect access for regional air services. Those, as my hon. Friend knows, will include ring fencing slots under European Regulation 95/93 and imposing a public service obligation under European regulation 2408/92. Those and a range of other options are being considered, and the review is now well under way. The work will subsequently feed into the preparation for the aviation White Paper that we expect towards the end of the year.

My hon. Friend pointed out that Dundee airport is linked to the prospects of airports in the south-east. The Government recognise that some major airports are close to the limits of their capacity. United Kingdom

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airports now handle more than double the number of passengers that they accommodated in 1985 when the previous national airports policy statement was published. The continually growing demand for both business and leisure air travel is increasing pressure on capacity at airports.

Nowhere is that pressure more evident than in the south-east of England. Three of the United Kingdom's four busiest airports are located in the region. All the major south-east airports are struggling to cope with the demands on their capacity. The Government are tackling the issue and we plan later in the year to publish an air transport White Paper to lay down the framework for the sustainable development of United Kingdom airports over the next 30 years.

There are three main building blocks to the preparation of the White Paper. This is probably important for my hon. Friend's constituency interests. First, we published in December 1999 a consultation document on the future of aviation. The other two building blocks are the two further consultation documents, one on the options for development at regional airports and the other about an option for airports in south-east England. We plan to issue those consultation documents in the spring.

As to airports in the south-east in particular, the south-east and east of England regional air services study has examined a wide range of options at existing airports and new sites. I am pleased to say that that study has now been completed. I am sure that when it is published it will be of considerable interest to the constituents of my hon. Friend and others with an interest in the matter.

As my hon. Friend will know, the 1998 White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" announced that the Government would prepare a statement of policy on airports, looking 30 years ahead. That paper made it clear that we need to make the best use of our regional airports, indicating our objective that they should meet local demand for air travel where that is consistent with sustainable development principles. We want to maximise their contribution to local and regional economies, relieve pressure on the congested London airports and reduce the need for long surface journeys to airports in the south-east. We are taking those policies forward through the regional airports and air services programme. If my hon. Friend carefully examines those studies, he will see that value can certainly be derived from them for his constituents.

This has been a valuable debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East on raising it and giving me, on behalf of the Government, an opportunity to answer some of his points. If there are any I have not answered, I should be delighted to write to him.

Question put and agreed to.

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