UK airport policy is grounded and may well stay that way

By: Gill Upton
Published: Monday, October 20, 2014 - 16:37 GMT Jump to Comments

The political parties are stacked in a holding pattern over the issue of UK airport expansion. A hung parliament may keep them circling whatever the Davies report recommends.

The Labour party, always staunchly opposed to a third runway at Heathrow, suggested during its September party conference, that it would expedite the decision on increasing capacity if it were to win next year’s election by setting up a National Infrastructure Commission.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said that a new Labour Government would not allow any more “dither and delay” over boosting airport capacity in the south east.

This statement has been interpreted as a move towards a more neutral stance as to which airport is expanded. Previously Miliband was against expansion at Heathrow.

The Lib Dems voted against expansion at Gatwick at their party conference in Glasgow, rejecting pressure from senior Liberal Democrat MPs that improvements in noise technology and emissions should trigger a re-think of the party line.

Despite the party manoeuvres, this major decision will be decided after the election next May when chairman of the Airports Commission Sir Howard Davies’ review is published. No-one can second guess its results, other than the fact that in its interim report published in December 2013 it wholeheartedly rejected Boris Johnson’s pet plan for a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, citing environmental disruption and economic disruptions.

No one was really surprised at this outcome.  The RSPB had already warned of impending airline crashes due to the location of an important bird sanctuary in the area and the very real prospect of birds flying into aircraft engines. The Dutch airport authorities would have to change air traffic movements to allow for take-off and landings from the new airport into their airspace. And the anti-Boris Island cadre had fun with stories of a sunken naval vessel in the estuary that still had TNT on board.

The sheer scale of the project –estimated to be in the region of £24bn - and the closure of Heathrow and the impact that would have to M4 corridor businesses was also cited by detractors.

Davies’ interim report favoured extra runway space at Gatwick or Heathrow and this has been taken forward for further study and the summer 2015 final report will reveal which airport will expand.

Boris Johnson has vowed to keep his project alive. “Gatwick is not a long-term solution and Howard Davies must explain to the people of London how he can possibly envisage that an expansion of Heathrow, which would create unbelievable levels of noise, blight and pollution, is a better idea than a new airport to the east of London that he himself admits is visionary, and which would create the jobs and growth this country needs to remain competitive.”

That the UK needs more airport capacity is in no doubt; Heathrow, for example, is currently operating at 98% capacity and predictions of passenger growth means that transfer traffic will go elsewhere if something is not done, and soon. Some industry observers believe this has already started to happen.

Virgin Atlantic’s CEO Craig Kreeger points to the fact that “Amsterdam has benefitted enormously from Heathrow’s constraints in its capacity” while Paul Wait, CEO of the GTMC, the body representing those travel management companies who book business travel, concurs. “Any further procrastination will only see more business travellers choosing to use non-UK airports and the UK economy will lose out,” he warns.

The GTMC has been vocal in lobbying government for decisive action and has been promoting the importance of aviation and business travel to the UKs economy.  The organization has been promoting ‘Let Britain Fly’  lobbying for not just an expanded hub at Heathrow but also an expanded Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester.

“People are being warmed up for Heathrow’s expansion,” Wait believes. “Where will this sit in the party manifesto’s next year? “ he asks.  “Transport is on the agenda and the parties need to remember that business travellers are voters. As an island nation business travel is essential to our future growth and prosperity. The time for dragging our heels on airport capacity is over. The UK cannot afford yet more delay and uncertainty on this critical issue."

Arguably, Heathrow has the biggest local market so it is best placed to expand into a global transport centre but it is also constrained by population density around its perimeters, something Gatwick does not suffer from.

The Lib Dems point to the fact that Heathrow cannot meet the environmental criteria for a low-carbon solution. Lorely Burt, the Lib Dem’s Solihull MP, said: “Airports are not the enemy. Passengers, whether on business or simply taking family holidays, are not the enemy. Carbon and noise are the enemy. Carbon targets are something we as a party take very, very seriously.

“The technological developments in carbon and noise reduction in aircraft manufacture in the last ten years alone have been impressive but we can’t predict how far and fast the technology to make aircraft cleaner and quieter will move.”

Despite impressive technological developments in carbon and noise reduction over the last decade, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are increasing faster than any other source.

Ed Balls for Labour said: “Whatever the outcome of the Howard Davies review into airport capacity, we must resolve to finally make a decision on airport capacity in London and the south east - expanding capacity while taking into account the environmental impact,” he said. “No more kicking into the long grass.”

Virgin’s Kreeger has the final word: “I go back and forth between being optimistic and pessimistic [about the Davies report] but I’m hoping that the decision will prevent the deadlock to date. Our industry is not valued for all that it contributes, or could contribute to the economy.”

Watch a video of Paul Kehoe, Chief Executive of Birmingham Airport revealing his strategy for getting around the Government's failure to decide on an airport expansion policy. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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