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10 Jun 2010 : Column 58WH—continued

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Benton, for giving me the opportunity to make my first speech in Westminster Hall. The issue of the volcanic cloud emanating from Iceland caused huge problems for people travelling abroad and for those trying to get home in April. British airspace was closed for six days, but it was also significant that the disruption lasted much longer than that. The problem also compounded the difficulties that the airline industry has been suffering.
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The recession hit the industry hard, and the grounding of all flights for days on end simply added to those difficulties.

Estimates vary-the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) quoted some relating to the airport in her constituency-but the EU estimates that the ash crisis cost the airline industry £2 billion. We can all agree that there was significant loss to the industry. We shall probably never know the true figure. About 100,000 flights were cancelled in the relevant period. The industry must accept that running any kind of business will never be risk-free, but we must also recognise that April 2010 was an exceptionally tough month. Not since 11 September 2001 has aviation faced such a challenging time. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) mentioned the surreal experience of looking up at the sky and seeing not a single aeroplane or jet engine trail, for a protracted period; I think that was only the second time that has happened in my lifetime.

I want to mention the difficulties that travellers faced. The uncertainty of the situation meant that not only could people not return home, but they did not know when they would be able to do so. There were Dartford residents who were affected by the travel disruption and could not get home or travel abroad. The ash cloud problems also coincided with the school holidays, and many people who had gone on family holidays could not return home, which had a consequential impact on them. Even my Liberal Democrat opponent in the general election, Mr. James Willis, could not get home until just before the nominations closed. Obviously, I was deeply concerned. He is a decent chap. It was sad that even in the middle of that difficult time for travellers, one airline tried to avoid liability for refunding passenger tickets, which added to the misery, uncertainty and difficulty for those travellers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) mentioned leadership, which the country looked for during that period. Clearly, safety had to be the priority for the Government. They needed to ensure that it was safe for people to fly, but we need to consider whether more information on the ash cloud could have been gathered more quickly than it was, and whether flight restrictions could have been removed earlier, reducing the impact on travellers and airlines. The then Government's initial approach was to claim that any ash in the sky meant that flights could not take place. We now have a new approach. I welcome last month's rule change to allow flights when there is ash in the atmosphere at the safe level of 2 mg per cubic metre. We need to ensure that that is reviewed, and to consider whether the non-aviation options were properly thought through.

We also need to see whether the contingency plans shaped up. Has the Minister been able to get to the bottom of what happened to the 100 coaches we heard so much about-which were meant to bring stranded British subjects home at the same time that coaches were being used by travel companies, and were at a high premium? As far as I can tell they never materialised, so perhaps lessons can be learned from that. We need to learn such lessons, because we must ascertain whether the decisions that were made were too cautious. I believe it is inevitable that a similar situation will happen again-probably with the same volcano, whose name I
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shall not even attempt to pronounce. However, we can ensure that if planes can fly safely, they are allowed to do so.

We need also to learn the lessons about the repatriation of passengers, and what practical measures might have been possible to help passengers who were stuck abroad. Will the Minister consider the possibility of temporarily-I emphasise the word "temporarily"-waiving night-time restrictions on flights, to allow people to get home should a similar situation occur in the future?

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): On deregulation, I appreciate that the Conservative party is committed to the deregulation Bill, but a fundamental point of passenger safety arises and we cannot allow compromise; it must be paramount. To allow commercial interests to influence our judgment would be a terrible mistake, with potentially dangerous consequences.

It was refreshing to hear the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) suggest that perhaps the Government at the time were not to blame. Sometimes it is easy to throw rocks, even volcanic ones, at one's opponents-in this case, the previous Government. A new phrase to use might be "tough on volcanic ash and tough on the causes of volcanic ash".

On working with the authorities and technical people, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) talked about the technologies-I am not sure whether they are radar or infrared technologies.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is getting rather lengthy and becoming a speech. I invite him to complete it, but he should bear it in mind that interventions should be as brief as possible.

Grahame M. Morris: Thank you, Mr Benton; I apologise.

My point is essentially about deregulation and not allowing it to compromise passenger safety. I would hate the drive to deregulation in the broader political environment to impinge on that, because it is vital.

Gareth Johnson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must of course ensure that safety is treated as paramount in such situations, but it is also essential to adopt a common-sense approach. We should not enter a blame game, but should learn the lessons that are there to be learned, so that if the same situation arises again, as I believe it will, we shall be better prepared to deal with it, and so that people stranded abroad can be brought home and can fly as soon as it is safe. To learn the lessons, we need to work with the airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority and all the agencies involved, so that there can be proper contingency plans.

I agree that it is easy to look back at the volcanic ash problem with 20:20 hindsight and claim that we have all the answers, and that the previous Government should have done this or that better. That would not be fair in many instances, because at the time we faced a unique situation. However, a Government's capability can be tested in unique situations. We witness the contingency plans-where they exist-the quality of leadership, and a Government's adaptability in unpredictable situations and how they interact with different agencies. In the light of that, I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the aviation industry will be able to
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contribute to the scientific and technological assessments of flying into areas where ash is present in the atmosphere. I hope the technology that some airlines are already using-an issue touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge-will be considered for use in detecting the location of ash clouds and their density. I also hope that we continue to work in partnership with the engine manufacturers, because they understand better than anyone the capabilities of their engine and the circumstances in which it would be unsafe to fly using their engine type.

Yes, ash clouds can be extremely dangerous to aircraft, and the crew and passengers of the 1982 British Airways flight over Indonesia, which was mentioned earlier, can testify to that, but we need common sense to prevail. The zero-tolerance approach was clearly wrong-we know that now-and the repatriation of passengers lacked co-ordination. We need to learn from that and ensure that when this situation happens again, we are better placed to tackle it.

3.30 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair, Mr Benton, and to serve under your chairmanship once again. The debate has been useful and constructive and-dare I say it, as a Member of seven months' standing?-very consensual. I say to newer Members that perhaps not every debate will be quite as consensual as this, but it has been exceptionally productive.

I praise the generosity of the Minister's remarks about the actions taken by my noble Friend Lord Adonis, and other Ministers in the Department for Transport prior to the election, in tackling the first emission of ash from the volcano. I welcome the steps the Minster and her colleagues have taken since the election, in particular on freeing up corridors and zones for air travel, which has contributed greatly to improving the situation for air passengers across the country. I would like to put on the record our appreciation for the work of the Department since the election.

The eruption of the E15 volcano-I am afraid that my standards of Icelandic pronunciation have not reached the Minister's level of mastery yet-was an act of nature. However, the consequences of the resulting ash cloud emitting from the volcano-it spread across Europe, causing the largest air traffic shut-down since 1945 and leaving 5 million passengers stranded across the globe-have been huge. There can be few Members who have not had constituents contact them with harrowing stories about the financial and other disruptive effects of being stranded in an unfamiliar place. The problem might persist for months, if not years, to come; on some estimates, the volcano might emit ash for several years. Previously, it has emitted ash for up to 20 years.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her advocacy of Newcastle airport, and on putting the strong case for its receiving a financial package to deal with the losses suffered. I thank the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) for his similar advocacy of transport needs in north-east Scotland and, in particular, of Aberdeen airport. He spoke eloquently about public safety and
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the need to continue to review the regulatory framework. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) spoke passionately about the effects of the ash cloud on her constituency and, in particular, on Rolls-Royce.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) spoke eloquently about how the disruption affected and inconvenienced her constituents, and about the need to learn lessons about safe thresholds of ash in the atmosphere. The hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) spoke with great authority about the effects on the aviation industry throughout the country and in areas surrounding his constituency, as well as the disruptive effect on passengers. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) for his extended but illuminating intervention. He put his point on deregulation with great force, and I look forward to hearing similar interventions, questions and speeches from him in this Chamber and the main Chamber in the coming months.

The airspace over much of northern Europe was closed from 15 to 23 April, and the ash cloud led to significant disruption of air travel in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland on 4 and 5 May, and in Spain, Portugal, northern Italy, Austria and southern Germany on 9 May, with Irish and UK airspace closed again on 16 May and reopening on 17 May. We heard stories in the debate of the distress and financial hardship, particularly from the hon. Members for Stourbridge and for Dartford, which occurred because of the disruption. The crisis has shown how significant and important aviation is to our way of life, for business, culture and tourism.

The International Air Transport Association estimated this week that, across the globe, airlines will make combined profits of $2.5 billion in 2010, albeit in Europe there are higher than projected losses of $2.8 billion, with $1.8 billion in lost revenues attributed solely to the ash cloud. The cloud has already led to a sharp reduction in UK air passenger numbers, with the British Aviation Authority reporting a fall in passenger numbers at its airports of 22.7% in April compared with April 2009. The closure of Heathrow and Stansted airports alone cost BAA £28 million. The figures for May, published today, show a fall of 4.5% in passenger numbers compared with May 2009-admittedly, the industrial dispute affecting British Airways was also a factor-against an expected increase of 0.4% in passenger numbers this May.

EasyJet has reported that the disruption has cost it £75 million, with 215,000 passengers' travel plans disrupted and 1,600 flights cancelled. Virgin Atlantic reported 310 cancelled flights and more than 43,000 stranded passengers, with potential losses approaching £50 million. As the hon. Member for Stourbridge alluded to, last week easyJet revealed that it intends to work with Airbus to fit infrared cameras to its aircraft by the end of the year, in order to detect quantities of ash in the atmosphere using AVOID-the airborne volcanic object identifier and detector system. Will the Minister discuss with the Civil Aviation Authority whether the potential certification of the system being developed by easyJet will proceed without too many difficulties, if the initial tests prove successful? If similar technology is shown to work, will she direct the CAA to encourage other carriers to fit it to their aircraft? Does she agree that such technology is likely to diminish the prospects of large-scale disruption to carriers and passengers, should the ash cloud return to UK airspace over the coming years?

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I have other points for the Minister to reflect upon in the debate or on another occasion. Will she liaise with her colleagues in other EU member states to ensure that there are no other supervening regulatory difficulties in achieving cross-European recognition for similar onboard volcanic ash particle detection systems in future? Can she confirm whether the Government have made a submission to the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation international volcanic ash taskforce, which is due to consider the provision of new guidance and standards to the aviation industry and, indeed, to national aviation authorities? Today is the conclusion of a meeting in Paris under the auspices of the ICAO to finalise proposals to amend the current volcanic ash contingency plans. Will the Minister inform hon. Members of any changes that the ICAO proposes to make to those plans?

An important issue is that of compensation for affected passengers. We know that EU regulation 261/2004 makes it clear that airlines are responsible for the welfare of passengers affected by the disruption, including providing subsistence and accommodation costs for the period in which they are stranded and are awaiting their flights. The European Transport Commissioner, Siim Kallas, was surely correct when he said in late April:

Some of the airlines have pledged to process the majority of affected passengers' compensation claims by the end of July, but will the Minister impress on the airlines the anger that many affected passengers feel about the delays to the compensation payments to which they are entitled under EU law? Will she promote stronger action to ensure that passengers who, through no fault of their own, were left stranded for up to a fortnight are properly recompensed? Will the Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State, resist any calls to weaken or dilute regulation 261/2004, which is surely an essential part of proper consumer protection law and of securing fairness for inconvenienced passengers?

We know that 2010 is the benchmarking year for aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme. Will the Minister make representations to the European Commission, perhaps in conjunction with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, about the inability of airlines to generate revenue tonne kilometres during the period of the closure of UK airspace and the effects that that may have on the allocation of emissions permits commencing in 2012?

There are two priorities for us in this debate. First, the interests of passengers, who demand the highest standards of safety and consumer protection and, secondly, the need for the aviation industry to work collaboratively with the Civil Aviation Authority to ensure that we minimise any future disruption through the use of new technology and smarter regulation of UK airspace.

3.43 pm

Mrs Villiers: With the leave of the House, we have had a very constructive discussion. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), correctly pointed out, the debate has been remarkably consensual and good natured across all parties. I fear he is correct that that will not necessarily be repeated on every occasion when we discuss transport matters in the main Chamber or this place.

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Before dealing with hon. Members' individual points, I want to mention a subject that cuts across a number of the speeches made this afternoon: the impact of data. The lack of data about the impact of ash on engines was clearly a big part of the initial problems, and there was also a need for more data on identifying where the ash concentrations actually were. As I outlined in my speech, significant progress was made on that problem relatively rapidly, and progress has accelerated. However, all hon. Members who mentioned that matter were correct to say that efforts to ascertain the facts about those two issues are pivotal to ensuring that we have a robust regulatory framework under which safety is paramount and the disruption caused by volcanic ash episodes is minimised and reduced.

Work on that matter is continuing with airlines and, crucially, with aircraft and engine manufacturers. The CAA is also actively engaged with that work, as is the Department for Transport through the active and energetic involvement of the Secretary of State and Ministers, who are engaging with the process and encouraging progress to be made. Such work is obviously hugely important if we are to be successful in preventing a recurrence of disruption on the scale that we saw earlier this year. In that regard, work is also being done on test flights. That kind of data will be important in improving the regulatory framework and making progress on the matter.

A number of hon. Members asked whether there should have been more advance preparations and why the scale of disruption was so much more significant in this case than it has been in relation to other volcanic incidents around the world. That point leads me back to some of the remarks that I made at the start of my speech. It was the type of volcano and its location that played a significant part in the degree of disruption caused. The fact that the ash was particularly fine meant that it was dispersed over a wide area and, geographically, the volcano was close to a very congested area of airspace. That unfortunate combination played a significant part in the extent of the disruption caused and is one of the reasons why we must make progress in improving the robustness of the regulatory framework to deal with such an unprecedented situation.

Turning to some of the comments made about the efforts to repatriate passengers, I emphasise that work on that is under way. We all hope that there will not be significant disruption in the future, but we must prepare for the eventuality that it might occur. The Government as a whole, under the auspices of the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office, are looking at contingency planning should there be another significant eruption. That work is considering all modes of transport, not just aviation. The Department for Transport is also working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which would lead on the issue of repatriating stranded British nationals. We will be placing a priority on preparations for that kind of effort to deal with disruption, if such a situation occurs again.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) made some interesting remarks about Newcastle International airport, which has an important place in the economy-not just for her constituency, but for the north-east as a whole. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire
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(Heather Wheeler) also made it plain that regional airports play a significant part in regional economies. Many regional airports have experienced significant difficulties as a result of the ash crisis, which is certainly something that we will take on board.

On compensation, I am afraid that I cannot add to my previous remarks. We understand the concerns of the airlines, the airports and travel-related industries, but, in an era of constrained public finances, the issue of compensation is very difficult. The kind of compensation that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North would like to be paid simply might not be affordable, but we will be devoting care and attention to the matter before a final decision is made. She also emphasised the issues surrounding data, some of which I have already responded to.

I turn to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Gordon. He outlined some of his own travel problems, with which I have great sympathy. He was right to point out that it was, literally, an ill wind that blew nobody any good-although some of the train operators did quite well as a result of the crisis. He was also right to say that one of the things that we must work on, just in case these events recur in some form or other, is trying to get as much information to people as early as possible, so that they can plan their travel.

One of the Secretary of State's first acts was to release some of the hitherto classified Met Office data for five-day forecasts, to help the airlines plan in the eventuality of further disruption and, in turn, help their customers.

The right hon. Gentleman also rightly referred to the importance of improving work on forecasting the location of ash concentrations, and I have outlined that. He mentioned that the crisis had caused some people to reconsider their travel plans and to look at alternatives to flying. Some people did go through that process but, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East also pointed out, the incident has shown us the important part that flying plays in our daily lives and our economy. Although it is useful to look at the environmental benefits associated with finding alternatives to flying, that is obviously not a solution when there is disruption on the scale that we experienced a few weeks ago.

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