The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I am grateful, Mr Benton, that you should be presiding over this debate; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
The debate is being held in Government time to allow us to consider the severe problems caused by volcanic ash in April. We are all too aware of the significant inconvenience and unhappiness caused to those who were stranded by the crisis or whose travel plans were disrupted. That alone merits the House’s giving careful consideration to how the crisis was handled and how we should deal with the continuing threats caused by volcanic ash.
Hon. Members will be aware that the source of the problems is the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. I hope that the House will forgive my rudimentary attempts at Icelandic pronunciation; I plan to say the volcano’s name a few more times today, so it might improve. For brevity’s sake, however, hon. Members may prefer to call it E15, not least because mispronouncing it has caused a number of problems for media outlets across the world.
A key point is that the distinctive individual characteristics of different volcanoes can have a significant impact on the level of disruption generated by their ash clouds. Eyjafjallajokull has a number of features that are relevant to the matters that we are considering this afternoon.
First, previously recorded active periods show eruptions of varying intensity taking place over many months. That is in significant contrast to volcanic eruptions such as those at Mount St Helen’s or Pinatubo; those were very intense, but they lasted only a matter of hours. Secondly, E15’s caldera is capped with ice. Initially, the magma erupted through the ice cap, which caused rapid cooling of the magma, leading to its explosive disintegration into fine particles of ash. I am advised that fine particles of ash are more easily conveyed over long distances by the prevailing wind, and they remain in the atmosphere for longer than the larger particles produced by eruptions like Mount St Helen’s.
Thankfully, E15 stopped emitting ash on 22 May. However, that does not mean that the crisis has gone away or that we should ease off with important activities meant to deal with the threat to flying posed by volcanic ash. The volcano could erupt again at any time over the next few months. Moreover, it is located 15.5 miles west of a larger volcano called Katla. Historical evidence indicates a worrying correlation between activity at E15 and subsequent eruptions at Katla. The risk of activity at Katla remains present. For a number of reasons, there remains an urgent need to address the issue and to ensure that we get the right safety and regulatory framework in the event of a recurrence of volcanic ash problems.
I am sure that everyone here will agree that safety must be our paramount concern. Volcanic ash presents a problem for modern jet-powered engines for two principal reasons. First, the ash is silica-rich and therefore abrasive, especially when it hits aircraft at high speed. That affects forward-facing surfaces such as the windshield and the leading edges of the wings, and it can also lead to accumulation of ash in surface openings-including, most importantly, the engines. Secondly, the composition of most volcanic ash is such that its melting temperature lies within the operating temperature range of modern large jet engines.
The risks have been illustrated in a number of previous incidents, and I draw the House’s attention to two of them. On 24 June 1982, a BA 747 jet, on its way from London to Auckland, flew into a cloud of volcanic ash 100 miles south-east of Jakarta. In rapid succession, all four engines flamed out and shut down. The aircraft entered a glide, dropping from 37,000 to 13,500 feet before the pilot was able to restart the engines; one of the engines failed again soon afterwards. Similarly, on 15 December 1989, a KLM 747 flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo flew into volcanic ash on the approach to Anchorage airport. Again, all four engines shut down. The plane dropped 14,000 feet before the pilot was able to restart the engines. Damage to the plane was reported to have cost more than $80 million.
I return to the crisis that we face in this country. The initial reaction of air traffic controllers and regulators in Europe was to follow the internationally established procedures set down in the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s volcanic ash contingency plan for the European region. That plan is based on experience, and it provides that aircraft should avoid flying in volcanic ash. The scope of the zone affected by volcanic ash was determined by a computer model run by the Met Office, in its role as the volcanic ash advisory centre for the north Atlantic. Using data about the ash emitted from the volcano, the model is used to predict where the north Atlantic winds will carry the ash, and the potential peak concentrations of that ash. As a result, the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS imposed movement restrictions in UK airspace that had the effect of grounding commercial aircraft between 15 and 20 April.
That decision undoubtedly triggered controversy. However, it mirrored similar measures taken throughout Europe. It also reflected the advice of aircraft manufacturers at the time that aircraft should not fly in areas if there was a risk of ash being present. Whatever the merits of the choices made during the tenure of the previous Administration, it soon became clear that a rule that required complete avoidance of volcanic ash in affected areas would not be a long-term solution in Europe’s congested airspace. That is why the CAA brought together airlines, regulators, and aircraft and engine manufacturers, to develop a new approach to reducing the disruption caused by Eyjafjallajokull.
After a review of test flight data, and in consultation with the airline operators, manufacturers and international partners, the CAA issued new guidance on the use of airspace on 20 April. That guidance reflected revised ash tolerance levels, as determined by the engine manufacturers. Put simply, it was established that there was after all a level of ash concentration that was consistent with safe flying. The area in which it was safe to fly was thus expanded, and aircraft were permitted to start flying again in UK airspace. That, of course, was immensely welcome.
The new regulatory framework designates three airspace categories. The first consists of airspace predicted to be free of ash, when no special restrictions apply. The second is a red enhanced procedures zone, when low ash density is predicted and aircraft are permitted to fly so long as increased safety and maintenance checks are carried out. The third category is a black no-fly zone, when predicted ash levels exceed safety limits and no commercial flights are permitted.
That was the situation in place when the new ministerial team took over the Department for Transport in mid-May. Given the hassle caused to passengers and the economic impact on airlines, the volcanic ash problem was clearly one of the most important issues for the new team to address. In the days immediately following the new Government’s taking over, officials had to work around the clock to deal with the matter. We need to pay tribute to their hard work, under both this Administration and the previous one. The new Secretary of State’s first official decision was to declassify the five-day ash concentration forecasts of the Met Office and authorise their publication, to assist the aviation community to tackle the crisis. He has focused time and effort on this matter every day since his appointment.
We have been working hard with officials, the Civil Aviation Authority and industry to ensure that such disruption to UK aviation is not repeated, even if there is renewed volcanic activity. Finding a safe way to achieve that goal is a high priority for us, which is why we put this debate on the agenda this afternoon. I look forward to hearing hon. Members’ contributions and comments on this important matter.
Central to our efforts is an attempt to engage with manufacturers, to distinguish between concerns about safety and concerns about the commercial impact of ash damage to engines. Given that the issues cross both the aircraft’s body and its engine, a key task for the CAA and the airlines has been to press the aircraft and engine manufacturers to establish, with clarity, what level of ash their engines can safely tolerate. That is a key question, and the Department continues to be actively engaged in that important process.
The general approach that I have outlined was endorsed at an international conference hosted by the CAA on 13 May. The conference brought together more than 100 representatives from organisations such as the European Commission, the European Aviation Safety Agency and Eurocontrol, as well as from the airlines, airports and manufacturers. I am pleased to say that on 17 May further progress was made. The CAA established an additional area for safe flying-a new time-limited zone-which is between the black no-fly area and the red enhanced procedures zone. Aircraft and engine manufacturers agreed that it was safe to allow operations in the new grey zone for a limited time at higher ash densities than were previously permitted.
To operate in the new zone, airlines need to present their national supervisory authority with a safety case that includes the agreement of their aircraft and engine manufacturers. Essentially, there was a doubling of the ash threshold for safe flying from 2,000 to 4,000 micrograms per cubic metre, which was a significant and a welcome step forward. However, I want to emphasise that the new Government are not letting up the pressure. We are also pushing for progress on the matter at an international level, both within the European Union and more widely in the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We want to see ICAO take forward the development of a new global standard on volcanic ash.
Turning now to the impact of this incident on passengers, I have immense sympathy with those who had their travel plans disrupted or who had difficulty getting home for work, school and other commitments. The situation must have been a nightmare for thousands of families stranded around the world during the Easter holidays. Certainly, the efforts made by the previous Government in aiding the repatriation of those passengers were subject to some controversy and criticism, and I imagine that during the course of the debate, hon. Members will want to recount the problems experienced by their constituents.
We need to acknowledge that many passengers felt angry and frustrated about how the situation was handled. Particular controversy surrounded the Madrid hub that was established by the previous Government to help bring home long-haul passengers. Nevertheless, to be fair, we should acknowledge that the Foreign Office did provide consular assistance to thousands of British nationals around the world. Additional capacity was also provided on Eurostar, the channel tunnel, cross-channel ferries and domestic rail to help passengers return home. Moreover, we should recognise the efforts made by the airlines and travel companies-initially to get people home by road, rail and sea and then by laying on extra flights once air space reopened.
Most passengers have statutory entitlements under one or both of the denied boarding, cancellation and delay regulations or the package travel directive, depending on the type of holiday that they bought. I do not propose to go into the detail of the rights accorded by such regulations, but further advice on them can be found on various internet sites, including that of the Air Transport Users Council. In practice, a proportion of passengers were provided with food and accommodation by their airline or tour operator until they could travel. Others covered by the regulation who opted for re-routing but who were not provided with up-front assistance are entitled to claim reasonable costs from their airline.
Most people acknowledge that the regulations did not work perfectly, but they were being applied in an unprecedented situation. There can be little doubt that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano was not a scenario uppermost in the minds of the legislators who drafted the rules. Their operation, therefore, clearly needs to be reviewed.
The response to the ash crisis is an important matter on the agenda for the next meeting of EU Transport Ministers, which will take place on 24 June and which the Secretary of State is planning to attend. Whatever the debate about the future of these rules, it is important to make one thing very clear and put it on the record. Despite the controversy surrounding the denied boarding rules and the undeniable burdens that they have placed on the airline industry in what was an unprecedented situation, we expect pending claims under those rules to be processed fairly, expeditiously and in accordance with the current law.
I should like briefly to address some issues around the impact of this episode on the aviation and travel industry. A number of organisations and trade associations from air transport and related industries have asked for financial assistance from the Government to help meet the costs of looking after passengers, and to cover lost business during April. In the last couple of weeks, the Secretary of State has met the chief executives of the major UK airlines to discuss a number of topics, including this one. We appreciate and understand the concerns expressed by the companies that were hit with an unexpected bill so soon after the end of the recession and so soon after what everyone has acknowledged has been a very difficult period for the aviation industry generally.
The Government have not ruled out providing support for airlines, but I do not want to raise expectations. The starting presumption must be that it is for businesses to meet their own operating risks and legal liabilities. Moreover, EU state aid clearance would be needed if assistance were to be given. Even more importantly, the state of the public finances means that such assistance may not be affordable. My understanding is that although Governments across Europe may sympathise with the plight of the airlines, they are also constrained by similar concerns about affordability. Such a view can come as no surprise to anyone given the current financial situation, which has been all too apparent in news bulletins recently.
In conclusion, this was and remains an unprecedented situation. It required the rapid development of a new approach to air safety regulation and lessons need to be learned to deal with similar emergencies in the future. Indeed, they are already being learned, as is shown by the urgent work that the new Government have undertaken to seek improvements to the robustness of the regulatory framework and its ability to adapt and to respond to the challenge posed by volcanic ash.
In that regard, it is worth noting that with the adoption of the 17 May set of changes, which I outlined earlier, the maximum concentration of ash designated as being consistent with safe flying has risen by a factor of 20 since the decisions that were made at the start of the crisis in April. But let me emphasise that both the CAA and the Department for Transport are continuing to work hard with engine and aircraft manufacturers with the goal of establishing a further increase in safe ash tolerance levels.
Eyjafjallajokull may have stopped erupting for the moment, but no one can rule our further volcanic activity and further disruption during the coming months. So I want to close my opening remarks by assuring the House that the new Government will work hard to see that every effort is made to minimise any disruption, with the goal of avoiding a rerun of the events in April that caused so much mayhem and unhappiness for so many passengers.
Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): My constituency is home to Newcastle International airport. It is an award-winning airport that is crucial to the business success of the north-east region. The airport suffered during the recession of 2009, with passenger numbers down by about 10.6%. There was also a significant fall in profits and staffing numbers.
The airport’s authority has expressed to me its view that the analysis of the effect of the volcanic ash on aircraft has improved, as the data have become more widely available. However, it was unfortunate that, from the beginning of this incident, there were severe restrictions and that there was no alternative to the action that was taken.
None the less, without apportioning blame for this natural event, Newcastle International airport would like the House to be aware of the losses that it has suffered, no doubt like other airports across the country, as a result of it. The direct financial losses at Newcastle International airport have been established at roughly £1 million. However, that sum can be multiplied significantly when the effect of the situation on other businesses at the airport-for example concessions, catering, hotels, car rentals and so on-is taken into account, and that will have a significant effect on the economy of the north-east region.
The airport’s authority has estimated that more than 75,000 passengers were affected by more than 780 flight cancellations. I am here today to urge the Government, on behalf of Newcastle International airport-and, I am sure, other airports in the UK-to work hard for compensation for airports as well as for airlines at the EU Transport Council on 24 June. I also urge the Government to work hard with the aviation industry to restore travellers’ confidence in air travel.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I also represent an airport, Aberdeen, which is one of the BAA group of airports. Like Newcastle International airport, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), it was affected by the volcanic ash. I will come back to that issue.
First, I want to thank the Minister for her opening remarks, which were really helpful in bringing us up to date on where we are and where we are going. I also want to say to her that, although the industry has suffered severe losses, I agree with her that this is not the moment for it to look to the public purse to resolve its problems. I do not think that that would be a realistic outcome. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that this incident was a shock that had severe economic repercussions, especially for the aviation industry, which we all know does not operate on the widest of profit margins, even at the best of times-and these are not the best of times.
It has been estimated that the industry lost something in the region of £50 million to £100 million a day, or at least most of those losses were suffered by the aviation industry. Perhaps 25% of those losses were suffered by other industries. To quote the proverb, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, and this was an ill wind-exactly so.
Having said that, there were other travel operators that benefited from this situation. I speak on a personal basis in saying that, and I would also like to make a comment about the unpredictability of the movement of the ash. When I was due to travel down to London at that time, I was told that either Aberdeen airport or the London airports were likely to be closed on my day of travel, so I elected to take the train. Earlier this week, we had a debate in the House that reinforced the case for high-speed rail going to Aberdeen. I say that because that journey took me seven and a half hours-on the fast train from Aberdeen. In the event, as I was on the train, I was able to check in on my phone and find that neither of the airports that I was due to fly to or from was affected by the ash.
However, people have to make plans, so one issue that needs to be addressed-the Minister has addressed it-is the fact that, if such events occur again, there must be the greatest possible accuracy and predictability to enable people to plan their options. Clearly, that would be important and helpful. No doubt the Civil Aviation Authority, the Met Office, NATS and everybody else will be getting together to ensure that we have a much better operating system, which would give people advance warning and the opportunity to make alternative plans. That would be instructive.
It was also interesting to see a situation in which nobody had ever considered the possibility of a total lack of planes in the skies for a week, and to see the mindset of modern life suddenly confronted with a quite unexpected challenge. For some people, that was shocking, inasmuch as all kinds of presumptions went out of the window, but for others it was perhaps refreshing, in that it made people understand that not all these flight journeys were necessary and that teleconferencing could be used quite effectively. For some people, there were more pleasurable means of surface transport than air travel, at least for the shorter journeys. Indeed, I heard one woman say that she had never seen the Alps, other than from the air, until she had to drive through them to find an airport from which she could get home.
It is right to acknowledge that that situation made people think differently. I do not know whether the Minister or her Department feel that they need to express any view about that, but it is being suggested that people might reconsider the kind of holidays or business trips that they make. People may consider that the risk of possible disruption justifies thinking about not travelling so far or finding places to travel to where there is surface transport. People might plan their lives slightly differently, especially given the fact that, as the Minister has warned us, a much bigger eruption could occur at any time, which could lead to more serious disruption.
I want to return briefly to the particular circumstances of the airport that is located in my constituency. Much the same as the airport in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, Aberdeen airport has suffered a direct loss-in landing charges and all the usual operating charges-which I estimate to be £1,056,000. That is a slightly more precise figure than the one that the hon. Lady gave for Newcastle International airport, but it is in pretty much the same ballpark.
BAA estimated that it lost £6 million per day for every day that the planes were not flying. Aberdeen airport recorded a 26% fall in passenger numbers in April 2010 compared with April 2009, yet in the first part of May 2010, the corresponding fall compared with the first part of May 2009 was 9.9%. In other words, the economic effect of the recession looks like accounting for 10% of the losses. The effect of the disruption from ash accounted for the other 15%.
Obviously, airports, which are suffering from the recession, find such losses quite a significant hit to take. Because it is part of BAA, I guess, Aberdeen airport did not even suggest to me or to my office that it was looking for compensation, but it was nevertheless anxious that people should be made aware that the incident had cost it money and that that was of concern to it.
The Minister touched on this point, but I want to ask whether she can determine the extent to which the UK authorities and the European authorities are operating in total unity, or do we feel that we have a distinctive concern of our own? The fact is that we are further north than many other European countries and consequently closer to the source of eruption, so the likelihood of disruption for the UK is probably higher. That would justify us having our own standards, if necessary.
As the Minister correctly stated, safety is the prime concern for us all. Interestingly, the public reaction was remarkably sanguine. I think that the vast majority of people, not being technically aware and hearing that there was a problem, would not have wished to take a flight into the unpredictabilities of an ash cloud. As the closure extended to a significant number of days, some remarks from the airline industry raised a slight concern, in spite of the qualifications made, that commercial considerations may have been prejudicing the industry’s judgment. That is understandable, but it reinforces the reason why such decisions must ultimately be taken by public agencies, not left to the commercial judgment of the operating airlines.
The public interest and the public good seem to justify the ability of Government and public agencies to take such decisions without the threat of financial liability for the consequences. It would be distasteful if, as some press reports have suggested, the airlines or the industry started to take European institutions, Governments, the CAA, the Met Office and so on to court over the issue. That would raise in the public mind a concern that public agencies whose job is to defend the public good and the public interest could suffer a commercial cost as a result of a decision that must be taken at short notice with the best of intentions. If necessary, the law should be brought into play to ensure that that does not happen.
That does not detract in any way from the fact that I have sympathy for the airlines. I recognise that they have a profit incentive and that none of them makes huge profits-indeed, hardly any are making any profit at the moment. However, we must ultimately operate on the basis of mutual good will and understanding. Conversely, the airlines are entitled to expect public agencies to seek the best possible advice so that unnecessary closures are not enforced and a full evaluation is made of the available options and diversions.
Interestingly, I read that there is some suggestion of an early-warning technology that could enable planes to identify dangerous concentrations of ash in flight and fly around, over or under them. It seems that we will accrue useful gains if we can make use of such technologies. I hope the Minister accepts that the right approach is a partnership between the public agencies and the industry. The public agencies should recognise that people want and need to fly, that flying is an economic necessity and that airlines must make revenues to keep their operations going. At the same time, public safety must be the overriding consideration.
On a parochial conclusion, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North is right to speak up on behalf of the airport in Newcastle, and I hope she will forgive me if I make some additional special pleading. I mentioned the length of the fastest train journey from Aberdeen to London. For us, the airport is not just an alternative means of communication; it is our essential connection with the economic drivers of our area. Aberdeen is the international centre of the offshore oil and gas industry, so it is vital to us that people are able to fly in and out of the city. The disruption has had serious significance for us, as has the ongoing British Airways strike, although in that case we can at least use other operators.
I am sure that the House will understand, therefore, that I will be as concerned as anybody if long periods of closure or no flying are likely, but I am not prepared to defend the importance of flying to the economy or the airport to my constituency when passenger safety is the overriding priority. People need to be satisfied that the Government have the right balance of regulations in place and confident that those regulations are realistic, that they take account of the technical information available and airlines’ capability to adapt to different circumstances, and, ultimately, that they balance commercial interests and the public interest. If we achieve that, even if another major disruption of this kind occurs, I hope that we will be able to manage it in a way that does not lead to long-term complete closure of flying. If that is what safety requires, that is what we must do, but I would think that we had learned enough this time probably to be able to prevent it from happening again. I certainly hope so.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): The Minister has set out clearly what problems the country faced and what tasks the Government had to go through. I am grateful for that summation of the situation, which I think was helpful for everybody.
In South Derbyshire live thousands of people who work at East Midlands airport, as well as thousands of people who make the magnificent air engines at Rolls-Royce, so I come at the issue with a two-pronged attack. Even though we had a week of peace while the airport was shut down, this situation has cost the airport’s owners, Manchester Airport Group, about £10 million. I am sorry that the situation has cost other hon. Members’ airports £1 million, but I think that I have trumped them. It has been a huge shock to our area. Passenger safety is the most important consideration, but the situation has hit us financially at a difficult economic time.
I applaud the Minister’s statement and look forward to any compensation package that might be offered. It must be Europe-wide. It must not be just our Government going out on a limb. That would not be fair to everybody in the country. We should also work hard on new technology, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said, and ensure that we minimize any future risks from the volcano-I am not going to try Icelandic, so I will call it E15. It is interesting that there is an ongoing risk that it might erupt again, and that its neighbouring big brother might blow as well.
We have learned a lot from those two eruptions. It was not a happy time. I sincerely hope that the Department for Transport, and perhaps the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will consider working with Rolls-Royce, other aviation companies and universities in greater detail on new types of radar and so on.
On the compensation packages, I have received some interesting letters from residents caught up in the disruption. They have given me detailed descriptions of how they felt let down by consular activities, particularly out on the west coast of America. If I may, I will copy the Minister in on those documents-I will probably send them to the Foreign Office as well-because the Government need to hear at first hand what happened. South Derbyshire is a great place, and people rushing back to it were particularly annoyed that it took about another week to achieve that.
I am grateful to the Minister for what she has said. I know that the thousands of people who work at East Midlands airport and Rolls-Royce will be looking for leadership on the matter.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) in discussing the impact of the recent crisis. I represent Stourbridge in the west midlands, which-like every other town in the country, I dare say-is home to countless people who were inconvenienced or stuck abroad. The eruptions happened during the election campaign. I was due to attend the opening of a new building, including a ceremony and a whole day of events, at Old Swinford Hospital school, but it had to be cancelled because various teaching staff and governors were scattered around the globe.
Also-I will not say that this is worse-a couple of people from my election delivery team were detained in Dubai, along with about 10,000 or 15,000 other people, and were unable to return to the UK to help me to get elected. It was illuminating to see how many people are away at any one time. I was surprised to hear how many teaching staff were away on all sorts of educational trips, not necessarily with their students, in Australia and other parts of the world.
I will not repeat what my hon. Friend said about compensation and the need for transparency. I am sure that dealing with that is in the forefront of the Minister’s mind.
On the national impact, our airline industry is looking at £1 billion of losses, which is a serious matter. My local airport was not as badly affected as the one in South Derbyshire, but Birmingham airport suffered losses of £2 million. There is also the ongoing effect to consider. This week, I spoke to the chief executive of Birmingham airport, who informed me that things seemed to be back to normal with long-haul flights-people visiting relatives in far-flung parts of the world-business flights and short-haul, two-week summer holidays. However, short, weekend-break holidays, when people spontaneously think that they might go somewhere for the weekend because there is an offer on easyJet, still seem to be struggling. People are still nervous about whether they will get back in time for work or other commitments at the end of their weekend break. Therefore, we should not forget the impact on future airline business.
Obviously, we need to learn from the way the crisis was handled in April. There certainly seems to have been a lack of application of research on identifying safe thresholds for volcanic ash in the atmosphere. My right hon. Friend the Minister gave examples of near disasters that have occurred over the past 20 or 30 years, but they seem not to have created a sense of urgency about improving regulations. As a result, the only option left in April was to close all our airspace. Now that the Government are going to get a grip on the issue, I hope that that will not be our only option when an eruption occurs again, as I am sure one will.
Initially, the main criticisms were that the UK allowed its airspace to remain closed for at least 24 hours longer than the rest of Europe. There were also questions over the extent to which help was given to passengers stranded around the globe. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire mentioned people on the west coast of America whom this country and the former Government could have done more to help, and I am sure that that is true of people who were stranded in other parts of the world.
I have also heard criticism from people in the airline industry that there was a real lack of political leadership at the outset of the crisis. It took a full three days before leading members of the Government were on the airwaves giving a lead as to what actions should be taken. The first time they came on the airwaves, it was to talk about sending the fleet to Spain to collect people who were stranded there, which was not the sort of initial leadership that passengers and airlines were looking for. I am sure that our new Government will learn from the leadership issues that arose during the crisis.
Obviously, there has been no major volcanic explosion in Europe for several hundred years, so we cannot blame anybody too much for the fact that all the airspace had to be closed. If I have mentioned certain matters, however, it is because there were things that could have been done, despite the fact that nobody expected the crisis to hit.
In finishing the first part of my speech, I pay tribute to Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said that most of us would not step into an aeroplane knowing the risks involved in flying into volcanic ash. Someone had to take the plunge and test a flight to see what the effects of ash in the atmosphere would be, and I greatly admire the chief executive of British Airways for leading from the front in that respect.
On the future, I hope that the research being done by easyJet will result in improvements to radar technology. I gather that the company is already testing its radar technology and believes that it will be good enough to predict ash clouds from about 60 miles away so that pilots will be able to fly around them. However, there is cause for a degree of caution about how far that will enable us to overcome the problem in the short term.
Malcolm Bruce: I want to reinforce that point. EasyJet should be commended for what it is doing, but does my hon. Friend agree that, if the technology is to make a viable contribution to a solution, it needs to be part of a regulatory arrangement, rather than the individual choice of one airline?
Margot James: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. It should be part of not only a UK, but an international regulatory solution. None the less, it is
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good to know that these technological developments are under way, although there is a fair way to go, even with the good work that easyJet has started. It is important that we understand the impact of not only denser ash clouds, but fragments and shards in the atmosphere. The key is to reach an understanding of what constitutes a safe level. I think that 2 mg per cubic metre is the accepted standard, but we need a greater evidence base to support that.
My right hon. Friend the Minister talked about the danger of the Katla volcano erupting. I gather from reading expert reports that it could have 100 times the impact of the previous volcanic eruption. Other experts-I am delighted that I now know that they are called vulcanologists, which sounds like something out of “Star Trek”, although I am sure that we will be hearing more from them in the future-predict that the Icelandic volcanic system will enter an active phase in the 2030s, so it is timely that the Government are starting to add weight to the priority of the issue.
The events that we are discussing have been a salutary experience for everyone who has been caught up in them. We in the west somehow think that we have conquered nature in many respects in our daily lives, but recent events are a timely reminder that nature is still very much in charge.
I would also emphasise the fact that nobody-no Government, no regulatory body, no industry-can predict and plan for everything. The Government are absolutely on the right path in looking for a regulatory solution and working with the industry, and I am sure that we will get there, but there is no perfect solution. I have spent most of my working life in the pharmaceutical industry, and there is no such thing as a medicine without a risk, just as there will never be such a thing as a flight without a risk. We have to accept that there will always be a risk, but we have to reduce it to manageable levels. We should opt not for the no-fly solution that we were all panicked into, but for a more manageable level of risk reduction.
New politics means different things to different people. To me, it is important that we understand that there are limits to what Governments can do, so we should not be too quick to blame the previous Government for the problems that I have tried to do justice to this afternoon. We should not expect too much or a perfect solution from this Government or any future Government.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister and her team will do their very best to move the situation on so that the airline industry and passengers are not once again brought to a halt and dramatically inconvenienced in the way that they were, and so that we manage the risk of taking to the air. However, nothing can ever be perfect.
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. 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-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 the issue of 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 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 the issue of 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 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.
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 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 had 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?
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:
“EU law must be respected…There are no discount passenger rights for discount airlines.”
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.
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.
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 (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.
The right hon. Member for Gordon went on to talk about losses at Aberdeen airport, and I think that I have covered that point. He also emphasised the importance of UK authorities working closely with European ones, and I can assure him that that is under way at the moment. He asked whether the UK needed special considerations and perhaps special rules, and whether we would always be in line with what the rest of Europe was doing. That is a point to note, because our being closer to the volcano than other countries has an impact on the decisions that we can make on airspace, and it perhaps played a part in the slight differences between the timings of the relaxation of restrictions. In response to what has been said by other hon. Members about the timing of that relaxation, it is worth bearing in mind that the work done by the CAA led the debate and formed one of the reasons why airspace across the rest of Europe was reopened. Some of the work done by the CAA was, I understand, adopted and used by other European countries in making their decisions to reopen their airspace.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire spoke very eloquently about East Midlands airport and its importance to her constituents, and also about Rolls-Royce’s superb manufacturing facilities in her constituency. She told us about some of the difficulties that local residents had in getting home. She asked for leadership on the issue, and we are determined to provide that; I appreciate how important it is for all her constituents who work at East Midlands airport and at Rolls-Royce. We put this debate on the agenda this afternoon precisely to enable Members such as my hon. Friend to make those kinds of points, to listen to Parliament’s concerns and to ensure that we provide the leadership needed to take forward the improvement to the regulatory system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) talked with eloquence about the inconvenience suffered by her constituents. I am sorry to hear that her election campaign was disrupted somewhat by the volcanic ash; that happened to a number of people. I had conversations with Conservative party HQ about the fact that Icelandic volcanoes were not included in its list of contingency plans for election tours. Nevertheless, the election efforts carried on undiminished. It was interesting to hear my hon. Friend’s comments about the impact on Birmingham airport. She, too, emphasised the importance of further research on the impact of volcanic ash on engines-a point I think I have covered. She paid tribute to Willie Walsh for his work in a test flight, and she welcomed the work done by easyJet, with its AVOID system.
Turning to some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, I, colleagues and the CAA very much welcome easyJet’s efforts to contribute to the debate. EasyJet’s efforts and the technology that it is trialling are being carefully considered. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East urged us proceed swiftly to deliver safety certification, but I am sure that he would not suggest that we cut corners. Interesting work is being done, and no doubt the CAA will monitor it carefully and go through the appropriate steps to ascertain whether and when it might receive the safety certification that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. That is, however, a matter for the CAA to determine, taking into account all the relevant facts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) spoke with great authority about the impact of the crisis on both passengers and the aviation industry. One of his questions was about the famous Madrid coaches. I have a long, full list of coaches, which I do not propose to read out, but I can send it to him. The total number of passengers transferred from Spain to Calais was more than 1,000, with a significant number of coaches leaving from Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga and Alicante.
My hon. Friend also referred to the difficult issue of waiving night flight restrictions. For his information, night flight restrictions were waived briefly when airspace first reopened after the prolonged restrictions on flying. Making an exception to the night flight rules is always a very difficult decision. I am a strong supporter of the protection that people are given as a result of the restrictions on night flights but, given the scale of the emergency, it was felt that a brief relaxation was justified.
In the event of a similar emergency in the future, I am sure that airspace authorities would give careful and due consideration to the difficult competing concerns. One wants to make every possible effort to normalise travel as soon as possible, but night flights have a corrosive impact on people’s quality of life and one therefore needs to act with extreme care, even when referring to only a very brief lifting of such important protections. My hon. Friend also urged me and my colleagues to work with the airlines, the agency and the industry on technology. We are definitely doing that-it is the only way forward. He also called for common sense to prevail, and I shall certainly try to ensure that that is the case.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East asked a number of questions, some of which I have addressed already. He asked, in particular, whether the UK is working with ICAO on its work to revise the volcanic ash rules and the programme for Europe. Yes, work is going on with ICAO on precisely that. He also asked whether the Government would impress on the airlines the importance of paying out in line with their obligations under the denied boarding and cancellation rules. As I sought to set out in my opening remarks, we believe that, whatever debate there may be in the future about those rules, it is important that the airlines pay out under their legal obligations in the rules as currently drafted, and that claims are settled as expeditiously as possible. He was right to raise the concerns of those who are awaiting settlement of reasonable claims under the provisions.
The hon. Gentleman urged me to prevent any dilution of EC regulation 261/2004. We need to look at it in the round to see whether there are ways to make the whole system work in a better and fairer way. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the matter will be discussed by EU Transport Ministers in the near future, at their next meeting.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman spoke about adapting the allocation of emissions permits under the emissions trading scheme so that the interruption in flying does not have a distortive effect on the allocation of permits when that is decided. That is a fairly technical matter, but I hear the point he is making and shall pass his comments on to those in the Department who are dealing with the mechanics of getting the ETS into operation. We need to see whether we can ensure that the interruption of flying as a result of volcanic ash does not have a perverse or distortive effect on the decisions that will be made in the future on the allocation of emissions permits.
With that, I shall close. I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for having participated in this constructive debate on an issue that is extremely important to our economy, as well as to holidaymakers, as we make progress on improving the robustness of the regulatory framework and its response to volcanic ash.
Question put and agreed to.
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