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May: The balance between air travel and the environment

Speech to the Guild of Business Travel Agents

Mr Chairman, I am honoured that the Guild of Business Travel Agents has invited me to speak at this lunch. Members of this Guild play an important role in our economy - and a role that is very often forgotten. When the term travel agent is mentioned most people think only of tourism and leisure travel forgetting that business travel plays a key role in underpinning our economy. For a trading nation like ours business travel is an essential aspect of business life.

With some 75% of corporate travel spend going to members of this Guild you do indeed have a central role to play and as such the standards of your industry are very important. I know from my own past experience in the City where I did quite a lot of business travel the importance of being able to rely absolutely on the travel arrangements made. And I was pleased to learn that this Guild certifies the only professional qualifications in the industry.

Members of this Guild along with others in the travel sector have been at the forefront of an often unremarked but indeed remarkable revolution over the last fifty years, the revolution in people's freedom to travel.

As a result of this revolution people have more choice than ever before over where they live, spend their leisure time and holidays and where they conduct their business. As an example of the choices people make today which would have been unheard of in the past, I met a constituent on Saturday who lived in Maidenhead but who had worked for a number of years in Bradford. He flew to and from Bradford every week. Proximity to Heathrow was doubtless a benefit as it indeed is to many of my constituents.

This element of choice is important not only in opening up opportunities for people, but also in giving them the freedom of more control over their lives and of offering enhanced economic opportunities. But it is this very element of choice that is too often the first casualty when governments decide to interfere.

Your job is to make sure that wherever people live and work and wherever they want to do business they are able to travel to where they need to be in a way that is cost-effective and fits their individual circumstances. You want the transport system that meets people's needs. Yet too often government policy is trying to do the opposite. It tries to fit people to the transport system rather than the other way round. Government wants to decide how people should travel and change their behaviour where necessary, rather than asking what people need and trying to deliver accordingly.

Of course there are areas where Government needs to play a role and there are always balances to be struck. For example, I believe that more people should be able to travel by air in the future. I also believe that a balance needs to be struck between further growth in opportunities to travel by air and the need to preserve the quality of our environment. But the need to strike a balance in this and other cases does not mean that government of whatever hue should be given carte blanche for centralisation and political interference.

If I may be allowed to spend a moment or two musing on the wider aspects of the industry, as living standards have risen, people have chosen to spend more of their time and money on travel. And the travel revolution has broadened the horizons of us all. While this is true of all forms of travel it is perhaps most true of air travel. In the last half-century air travel has been transformed from a luxury available to a few to a service available to all. In 1952 air travel accounted for just 0.1% of all travel, today it is almost 8%. Today 90% of us have flown at least once in our lives and half of us took a flight in 2001 alone.

This revolution has also made an enormous contribution to our economy. It has been estimated that aviation generates and supports more than half a million jobs in the UK. But as members of the Guild will know, the economic benefits of air travel are also indirect. The benefits of air travel to tourism which is one of the two biggest contributors to Britain's invisible earnings might be obvious, but the other major contributor to our invisible earnings is the financial services sector which also benefits from air travel.

That travel is something people enjoy and is vital to our economy may seem obvious. Yet, substitute the word 'transport' for 'travel' and a very different picture comes to mind. The word transport conjures up images of traffic jams, delays and cancellations. The very word 'transport' suggests that rather than being a matter of personal choice and pleasure and in providing economic opportunities, travel is actually nothing more than a logistical chore.

The current government's '10 year plan for transport', with its targets for almost every aspect of travel, was the logical outcome of such an approach. Evidence of the government's failure confronts us on a daily basis, yet the Government still puts much effort into trying to suppress it. Last week, it blocked the publication of a report by the Strategic Rail Authority. A leaked copy catalogued, in depressing detail, the true state of our rail network.

The Commission for Integrated Transport, the very body the Government set up to further its 10 year plan for transport, has been stripped of its power to monitor progress after making it clear that the government was failing to deliver.

Air travel has generally provided a refreshing contrast to the growing problems that beset surface transport. This is largely because it has had the freedom to respond to increases in consumer demand that government direction has denied elsewhere. In fact, air travel has shown the fastest growth of any type of travel in recent years with dramatic reductions in fares and charges. These improvements have been the result of increased competition made possible by liberalisation of the European air market.

The London to Glasgow route is a good illustration of the impact of these changes. The advent of low-cost operators meant that the number of carriers on this route doubled between 1995 and 2001 and the total capacity on the route has increased by around 80%. In fact, competition has become so intense that some passengers find they pay more in airport charges and taxes than they do for their ticket.

That air travel has been so successful undermines the fallacy behind Labour's policy that transport must be subject to planning and centralisation. Indeed, one could not think of a more complex and decentralised form of travel than air travel. Many different carriers compete for passengers. Services are provided by an array of travel agents, airport operators, national air traffic systems and others. Even though the amount of people handled by British airports almost doubled between 1990 and 2000, there was no related increase in accidents and air travel remains by far the safest way to travel.

I believe there are important lessons from the experience of air travel that should be applied elsewhere, but recent actions suggest that the long period of certainty and stability that has resulted is now under threat.

The publication of the Aviation White Paper in December was due to give a long-term coherent view of the development of air transport in the UK. I fear that far from doing that it has introduced yet more uncertainty.

As you know the first new runway in the South East is to be at Stansted. Most of the growth at Stansted has been in the kind of low-cost flights that have done so much in recent years to increase people's opportunity to travel. Yet a new runway at Stansted will mean higher charges, which may drive away these low-cost operators. Indeed, it is not clear that a new runway at Stansted is commercially viable.

At the same time we are told that Heathrow may also get another runway, but not yet. A new runway at Heathrow depends on action to reduce emissions to meet EU standards. That requires action on road traffic as well as in the air. Yet the Government has given no indication of whether it is going to do anything towards meeting the target. Moreover Stansted will need improvements to rail access and any expansion at Heathrow would if not require then certainly benefit from improved rail access certainly to the west and south. Here again Government has given no indication of any firm plans to do anything - and the Strategic Rail Authority doesn't have the money to make the improvements needed. The airport operator is being asked to provide funding - but there undoubtedly will be a limit to the extent to which they are prepared to fund rail improvements that are of more general use. With possible legal challenges on the Government's proposals there is still much uncertainty about the future.

Another area where Government is impacting on air travel currently is the whole area of safety. We support the Government's plans to introduce armed 'sky marshals'. We must do everything we can to improve security on flights and to reassure passengers. Yet the way the Government chose to announce this move was disappointing and again symptomatic of its bureaucratic and centralist approach.

Alistair Darling told the House of Commons that Government had announced they were going down this route a year ago. If so why was it that when they made their announcement after Christmas they had not had or completed the necessary discussions with airlines and pilots. They had a year why weren't the protocols in place? For passengers to feel more secure they need to know that pilots are happy with the scheme.

The issue of safety is one where Government needs to balance the issues carefully. They have a duty to citizens to provide for their security. But there is of course a need to examine carefully the impact of any new measures and assess their benefits. The passenger flying out for a two week holiday may not mind some extra delay in the name of security. But the business traveller for whom time is usually of the essence may take a different view. It is the business traveller who may well decide to use technology to access their client or supplier rather then flying to meet them if the delay is too great.

I therefore welcome the moves being made by the Guild to take a more active role in lobbying government, in putting the case for business travel. It is important that Government understands the impact of its decisions not just on air travel but on issues affecting surface travel too.

The Guild has an important role to play in that and I wish you the best in all that you do in future.

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