MPs from all parties and all parts of the UK urged the government to protect air services to the five London airports from the regions. And DTLR minister David Jamieson hinted the government might act to preserve some services by ring-fencing public service obligations on specific routes.
Initiating the debate in Westminister Hall, David Stewart, Labour MP for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, said that in 1986, 19 regional UK airports had direct daily flights to Heathrow, with an average of 106 flights daily. However, this summer only eight regional airports had direct flights to Heathrow, and the daily average of flights had fallen to 88. In 1986, 15 airports had direct flights to Gatwick but by 2001 that had fallen to 11.
Mr Stewart said that under European regulation EC 95/93, member states could preserve slots in two situations: first, on a route to an airport serving a peripheral or development region, if that route was considered vital for the economic development of that region; secondly, on routes where the government have imposed public service obligations to maintain a service that would not otherwise exist.
In his constituency, Highland Council, the enterprise agency, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Inverness Chamber of Commerce and 90% of businesses all argued strongly for a public sevice obligation on the Inverness to Gatwick route. Sarah Boyack, minister for transport and the environment in the Scottish parliament, had written to the DTLR with a proposed draft PSO for the department's consideration.
Mr Jamieson said the department would consider the request for a PSO. DTLR officials would meet members of the Scottish executive today to discuss this important manner.
The government recognised the significance of regional air services and their economic and social spin-offs. Good direct flights to the capital and interlinking opportunities to international flights attract inward investment and encourage the development of business and tourism in the regions. Therefore, I understand concerns that current air links between regional airports and london should be maintained.
Mr Jamieson explained: 'Under the current regulation, the government's ability to reserve or ring-fence slots for regional services is narrowly defined. They are permitted to reserve slots without a public service obligation provided that the slots were being used for the route before 1993, there is only one carrier on the route and there are no adequate links by alternative modes of transport. The government have not so far ring-fenced slots without a PSO.
'They may also reserve slots when a PSO has been imposed on a route. I hope that clarifies the avenues down which we may go'.
Hansard 31 Oct: Column 273-295WH