Lord Empey wants legislation to protect Belfast to Heathrow air-link
Lord Empey introduced a Private Members Bill into Parliament on Friday aimed at protecting landing slots at Heathrow Airport for UK regions.
The UUP peer wants legislation to secure the vital link between Belfast and Heathrow. The Bill aims to give the transport secretary the power to direct airport operators in the interests of protecting air routes between Heathrow and the regions by ring-fencing domestic slots.
Lord Empey warned of the risk of airlines pulling out of certain routes as they become less commercially viable.
He said: "I am particularly concerned that the Heathrow slots owned by commercial airlines which currently serve aircraft to and from Belfast could be vulnerable if airlines seek to transfer them to more lucrative routes.
"I want to put in place a long-term guarantee that there will be access for flights from Belfast to London Heathrow, given its importance to Northern Ireland’s future economic well-being."
The Bill would amend the Airports Act 1986 to:
- Enable the Secretary of State for Transport to give directions to airport operators “in the interests of ensuring sufficient national air infrastructure between hub and regional airports.
- Require the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), when advising or being consulted by the Secretary of State, to take into account “the need to ensure adequate services between hub and regional airports.
Labour peer Lord Reid of Cardowan supported the Bill, during the second reading debate in the House of Lords, saying transport links are vital to UK unity.
He said some people living outside the London "metropolitan bubble" had become "considerably alienated" and described a "real questioning of what it now means to be British", particularly in post-referendum Scotland.
Central to that feeling of being part of a wider entity and to "cohesion" is being able to travel easily within it, he told peers.
He said: "From the recent election results, from my own part of the country in Scotland, there is a real questioning of what it now means to be British. I believe that that will not be responded to merely by constitutional provisions, but by the application of ... minds to what practical measures can be introduced by the Government that in real practical terms mean people feel more British, more part of the UK, than they do today.
"Because if we do not, on each one of these subjects bear in mind we have to reconstitute the feeling of being part of a wider entity, which is the solemn state of the UK in all our deliberations - cultural, sporting, transport, employment - then I believe that ultimately whatever constitutional arrangements we make will not be underpinned by that feeling of belonging.
"Central to this surely is the facility to move, whether on leisure or on business, between parts of the UK.
"For that wider political reason I hope there is a ... self-interested understanding of the Government that this is not just a matter of transport policy, it is a matter of the UK's cohesion in many dimensions."
However Conservative peer the Earl of Caithness said he did not support the Bill because private providers could not be forced to run unprofitable routes in a commercial market.
Viscount Younger of Leckie described Lord Empey's intentions as "admirable" and accepted the Government had limited powers to intervene in the market
But, replying for the Government, he pointed to the current "healthy demand" for flights in the regions and warned interference could distort competition.
He also said that to implement the Bill would open the Government up to legal challenge because EU regulations currently only permit intervention via the public service obligation when slots are available.
He told peers the Government could already step in where necessary and had done so on occasion, for example in relation to a Dundee to Stansted route.
Lord Empey said demand could fall in the future and asked what would happen if, for instance, Emirates was to buy British Airways.
He called on the prime minister to raise the UK's particular situation as he conducts his renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU.
As a private member's Bill, the legislation is unlikely to become law without Government support due to limited parliamentary time.