Airlines given ultimatum over safety and fares

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The Independent Online

Britain's airlines are to be given a government ultimatum demanding they improve their service to passengers, or have tough new regulations forced upon them.

Britain's airlines are to be given a government ultimatum demanding they improve their service to passengers, or have tough new regulations forced upon them.

They will be told to provide higher standards of safety and comfort, as well as improving the way they publicise theirlowest fares. If the opportunity for self-regulation is not taken, ministers will table a series of measures giving customers more rights.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, the Transport minister, will tell carriers next week to pay more compensation for lost baggage, shorten queues at check-ins and take steps to combat the growing menace posed by "air-rage" incidents. He will urge swift action to alert passengers to the risks of suffering dangerous blood clots on long-haul flights.

The announcement will open up a deep rift with the airline industry, which believes the Government is emphasising short-term "populist" measures at the expense of the far more serious issue of providing increased airport capacity.

Airline executives arguethat ministers tend to fight shy of establishing new airports or backing additional runways because they take all the flak when the decision is made, but have left office by the time the benefits are felt.

Airlines believe Whitehall officials were asked to redraft a consultation paper to be published next week to divert attention away from longer term concerns and provide a more consumerist "spin".

However Lord Macdonald is insisting that there is a genuine need for the industry to become more "passenger friendly". He believes, for instance, that airlines should consider a ban on people taking their own drinks on board planes, to help tackle the problem of rowdiness.

In a speech to an air industry conference on Tuesday, the minister will also demand that companies should produce better information on the potential health consequences of flying.

The minister's concern follows a report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee which called for more information for passengers on the risk of blood clots (known as deep-vein thrombosis, or DVT) forming in their legs on long-haul flights. One option would be to give passengers a pre-flight health demonstration.

Lord Macdonald will challenge airlines to produce a system which will allow customers to find the lowest possible fare by the easiest possible method.

Carriers will be asked to reduce queues at check-ins, establish better systems for dealing with lost baggage and provide improved services for the elderly and disabled.

Passengers should also be given far better information about delays. In such circumstances higher quality refreshment and free telephones should be available.

Airlines are known to be furious over the thrust of the minister's intended comments. They claim that most of Lord Macdonald's concerns over customer care are already being addressed.

The industry believes that the Government is intent on policies which will increase their costs and mean higher fares. The introduction of a tax on aviation fuel and an auction system for take-off and landing slots at busy airports are under consideration, airlines believe.

Senior airline sources expressed frustration yesterday that the Government is not prepared to look at the long-term issues facing the industry. One source said that ministers believe the construction of another major airport or extension of an existing one is socontroversial that they would prefer not to take the decision.

Charles Miller, of the British Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, said the organisation understood ministers' concerns about passengers, but he said there was a chronic shortage of capacity in terms of air traffic control and runways.

"The White Paper was meant to be focusing on theserious long-term questions, but it isn't. If there was a massive shortage of capacity in the rail industry the Government would be on to Railtrack like a shot."

Andrew McCall of the Airport Operators' Association said Britain would lose out to the Continent unless more runways were built.

British Airways recently warned that it would set up a new overseas base unless conditions at British airports improved dramatically.

The five main airports serving London handle 100 million passengers a year, and the maximum capacity of 160 million is expected to be reached by 2010. According to government figures, five years later demand for travel in the South-east will require a capacity of 184 million.