18 October 2023
Jesse Norman moves measures to support the recovery of the aviation sector

Jesse Norman, Minister of State at the Department for Transport, moves a motion to introduce some temporary flexibility to the strict rules for airlines on aircraft slots usage due to ongoing impacts of the covid-19 pandemic, this will minimise disruption to consumers and support the recovery of the aviation sector.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)

I beg to move,

That the draft Airports Slot Allocation (Alleviation of Usage Requirements) (No. 2) Regulations 2023, which were laid before this House on 18 July, be approved.

To the casual and untutored eye, this might seem a very small piece of legislation to bring to the Floor of the House of Commons. However, it is not only important to the sector but a useful illustration of the work of Ministers and parliamentarians in Committee, so it is nice to have a chance to focus on these quite technical and not especially controversial regulations.

The regulations will be made under powers conferred by the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021, which also rejoices in the name ATMUA. Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, that legislation created a more flexible set of powers for Ministers to implement alleviation measures for aircraft slots related to the impacts of covid-19, subject to a vote in both Houses. That allows the UK to adapt its approach so as to minimise disruption to consumers and support the recovery of the aviation sector. Under ordinary circumstances, airlines must operate aircraft slots 80% of the time to retain the right to those same slots the following year—that is known as the 80:20 rule, or the “use it or lose it” rule. It is designed to encourage a more efficient use of scarce airport capacity. As a result of the effect of covid-19 on air travel demand, however, alleviation from the rule has been provided since summer 2020.

The Department has seen a strong recovery in passenger demand during 2023, but there remains uncertainty and a lack of resilience in the industry, and demand on some routes remains below the levels seen before the pandemic. Those factors affect both demand, such as the number of returning passengers, as well as supply, such as aircraft availability and staffing. They add to what has been termed the long “covid tail” in rebuilding resilience in the sector. Thus, aircraft that were out of service during the pandemic now spend much longer in maintenance and overhaul than would normally be the case. That phenomenon is compounded by difficulties stemming from the pandemic, which have affected access to spare parts through global supply chains. Although the industry has taken steps to address those challenges, they are expected to remain an issue during 2024.

The Government have therefore designed a package of measures for the winter 2023 season to mitigate the adverse effects of that loss of resilience. The normal 80:20 rule on slots usage has been retained. However, it has been combined with some limited flexibility through a small pre-season hand-back allowance and a continuation of the previously adopted measures on the justified non-utilisation of slots. The Government have focused the measures on a return to business as usual. We are mindful of the need to balance supporting the sector through sensible and proportionate measures to aid its recovery and protecting consumers from disruption, with the need to avoid excessive alleviation, which could distort competition.

There are two key provisions. The enhanced justified non-utilisation of slots provisions were first introduced for winter 2022. They act as a safety net for airlines if new restrictions are introduced and they can justify not using slots. They protect the airlines’ historic rights to slots in scenarios in which any reintroduced covid-19 measures might severely reduce demand or the viability of a route. However, for any requests for justified non-utilisation of slots, a rationale must be given to the independent co-ordinator for assessment of its merits against the provisions.

The second provision is a limited slots hand-back. For this winter season, the Government will again allow carriers to claim alleviation on up to 5% of their slots at any airport handed back before the start of the season, as was done for this summer. The Government have offered that opportunity in the expectation that the industry will deliver a realistic schedule for winter 2023, thereby minimising last-minute cancellations and delays. The opportunity to hand back slots before the start of the season has been particularly useful in ensuring that airlines deliver a robust schedule, and has helped to provide certainty to consumers that scheduled flights will operate. The measures will cover the winter 2023 season. The Department for Transport is considering whether further alleviation may be required for future seasons.

Through these measures, the Government aim to strike a balance between supporting the sector and minimising disruption to consumers while encouraging recovery and ensuring the efficient use of slots.


At the conclusion of the debate

Jesse Norman 

It is a delight to wind up this debate, and I thank colleagues who have spoken in what have been brief but deep and thoughtful exchanges. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) rightly pointed to the anti-competitive potential of these measures, and also highlighted their modesty and, therefore, the sensitivities—she is absolutely right about that. She is also right in her concern about ghost flights. At the risk of violently agreeing across the Chamber, I think she is also right on the question of how long these measures will continue for. I will address that issue further in my remarks.

The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), was right to point out that there is no direct Scottish interest in this, and I thank him, as I thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), for supporting this Conservative legislation. I hope it becomes a habit for the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, as it has done for his former colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—I think that is a useful development in SNP politics.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning)—[Interruption.] That is what I said. I said my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, as the record will show. I was very sorry to hear again about the situation that his constituents have faced in relation to what happened at Luton. I absolutely take on board, and the House will have noted, his comments and concerns about expansion and its impact locally. He will appreciate that, as with Active Travel, the bus and coach sectors, and other items raised in the debate, that issue has nothing to do with the subject of this debate, and he was rightly critical of those who would crowbar in things that are not relevant. However, the concern of any colleague is always relevant if it is a direct constituency matter. He was right to raise it and I thank him for that.

I thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East for his support. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, the joy of having this debate on the Floor of the House of Commons is that a wider range of colleagues can come and express a concern, and we can shine a little light on the statutory legislative process, which is of enormous importance to the conduct of this House and the two Chambers of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East asked about the metrics for use in relation to non-utilisation. Those are set out in the excitingly entitled “Principles of slot allocation” document at section 8.8, which concerns the “Justified non-utilisation of slots”, and those are the rules. To respond to his question about slots, obviously there is a consultation to be launched in due course, but those are the rules as they stand.

In relation to work on consumer rights, my right hon. Friend will be aware that on 27 June 2023 the Government published our response to the aviation consumer policy reform consultation, which set out legislative reform and non-legislative measures to ensure that passengers receive the best service possible. Among the non-legislative measures is a considerable range of efforts to work with industry on a variety of measures designed to accelerate and speed up the protection of those rights. He is absolutely right.

In relation to the use of these measures in future, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the aviation Minister, said in the House of Lords recently that she was asking herself the question as to when these measures would wind up, and she hoped it would be soon. I think that represents the Government’s position.

It is true that we have a consultation planned on slots reform. Members will also note that the level of consultation that informs this set of measures is well spelled out in the explanatory memorandum to the legislation, and that sets out in some detail what conversations and discussions have been had with the industry, and it provides a fairly compelling background to these modest but flexible measures.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. I am one of those people who came in here just to listen, because this debate was not being held in a dusty corridor somewhere upstairs—I am here to learn. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) that the Ministry decides the number of slots, but who decides who gets those slots? Is it the airport or some other body?

Jesse Norman 

I had sat down, but I am happy to take a late question from my colleague. The number of slots derives from historical control over and entitlement to slots at existing airports, but there are also mechanisms for reallocating slots that have been handed back and for allocating slots when they become available. Those are conducted by an independent process and reviewed by an independent process, and there are no plans in this legislation to make any changes to that.

Sir Mike Penning 

Going back to my speech earlier and the increase in slots at Luton airport, can the Minister indicate when the increase in flights will start to occur, so that I can inform my constituents how much of their life is going to be blighted even more by the flights from Luton airport?

Jesse Norman 

I am not sure I quite caught the force of the question, because I was being interrupted when my right hon. Friend spoke.

Sir Mike Penning 

What are the timescales for the increase in slots from Luton airport, now that the Government have given permission for the expansion of Luton airport? That will have a massive impact on my constituents, and I would like to inform them factually about what is going on.

Jesse Norman 

Existing slots will follow the procedures laid out in the legislation. As regards future slots, they will be allocated according to the consultation that we will be launching shortly. I should say that this is the last intervention I will take, Madam Deputy Speaker, since I had sat down before the two previous ones.