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Airports Commission sticks with Londoncentric approach to the future of aviation

Airports Commission sticks with Londoncentric approach to the future of aviation

🕔17.Dec 2013

An interim report published today by the Airports Commission concentrates solely on improving capacity in London and the South-east and makes it clear that expansion of Birmingham Airport with a second runway is unlikely until 2050 at the earliest.

The commission, led by former Financial Services Authority boss Sir Howard Davies, is proposing new runways at Heathrow and Gatwick, with at least one to come into operation by 2030.

The possibility of building a new airport in the Thames Estuary, a proposal supported by Mayor of London Boris Johnson, has not been shortlisted by the commission.

The interim report said that although such an airport would boost economic development to the east of London, it would be five times more expensive to build than additional runways at existing airports.

A plan to build a new runway at Stansted was rejected, for the time being.

The possibility of government intervention to boost regional airports by imposing a congestion charge on Heathrow and Gatwick was firmly rejected.

The interim report stated: “Intervening to redistribute excess demand away from airports in London and the South-east does not appear to be a credible option.

“The commission has looked at options for imposing a congestion charge on the UK’s busiest airports to incentivise airlines and their passengers to use other airports, including regional airports that are not yet fully utilised.

“Most of the new services developed at less-congested airports under this policy would simply duplicate services already available at Heathrow, such as flights between London and New York.

“In addition, there is little scope for Government intervention to force airlines and passengers to use less busy airports, and past measures of this kind have rarely, if ever, achieved their objectives.

“The commission has therefore concluded that there is a clear case for one net additional runway in London and the South-east, to come into operation by 2030.”

The only direct mention of Birmingham came in a press release from the commission: “The commission has not shortlisted proposals for expansion at Stansted or Birmingham, however, there is likely to be a case for considering them as potential options for any second new runway by 2050. In its final report the commission will set out its recommendations on the process for decision making on additional capacity beyond 2030.”

Sir Howard’s report was published 10 years after the last Labour government published an aviation white paper The Future of Air Transport proposing the construction of a major airport in the Midlands as well as a third runway at Heathrow. The idea was quietly shelved.

Birmingham Airport has argued in its Balanced Aviation Strategy for four major national airports based in London, the Midlands, the North-west and Scotland.

In its long-term vision document Birmingham argued strongly that “a one airport solution is not a national aviation strategy”.

On the eve of the commission’s interim report being published, Birmingham Airport chief executive Paul Kehoe said he expected to hear recommendations that would boost economies across the country and not just in the South-east and was waiting “with bated breath”.

Responding to the Airports Commission interim report, Mr Kehoe said he was pleased the Davies Commission had recognised Birmingham’s long-term potential with the possibility of a second runway.

Mr Kehoe said: ““Our hard work has paid off. Birmingham Airport has today been recognised as an integral piece of the long-term aviation puzzle and many of the recommendations we have made are included in this report.”

However, the compliments quickly vanished. Mr Kehoe went on: “The report is long on tomorrow and short on today. The crisis is emerging and, whatever the long-term solution, the commission has recognised that Birmingham Airport can provide capacity now.

“Concerns remain that the report does not address the whole British economy. Despite the stated remit of the commission to take a UK wide perspective, the Interim Report focuses disproportionately on the South-east further entrenching the dominance of the South=east economy to the detriment of the growth of the rest of the UK.”

Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore also criticised the interim report, which he said had “let down” the business community: “I speak on behalf of the Midlands when I say we are hugely disappointed with the Airports Commission’s failure to address the need for a balanced UK economy. 

“We had a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape our aviation sector so that it served to help rebalance the national economy and deliver for businesses outside of the South East. The commission has failed to fulfil its remit to take a UK wide perspective and in so doing has let down business people across the country.

“Any future decision on aviation policy needs to actually consider implications for the national economy.”

He was joined by Birmingham Chamber chief executive Jerry Blackett: “We regret that the report does not examine the critically-important role of aviation in supporting the rebalancing on the UK away from the existing and unsustainable reliance on London and the south-east.

“Cities like Greater Birmingham are poised to grow dramatically and we need direct flights to the growth economies. In focussing on aviation supply in London and the south-east, the report looks like a sticking plaster job only for the UK economy as a whole.”

The Airports Commission’s interim report concludes that Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Luton airports will be full to capacity by 2030, and adds: “Addressing these problems will require new runway infrastructure in London and the South-east.”

A list of measures to increase capacity in the short term includes an ‘optimisation strategy’ to improve the operational efficiency of UK airports and airspace, including: airport collaborative decision making. A system which provides access to accurate and timely flight information for all those involved in processing aircraft to increase the predictability and speed of the aircraft turnaround process.

Greater use of enhanced navigation methods to allow more planes to land on “multiple arrival and departure routes” is also proposed.

The commission is recommending a package of surface transport improvements to make airports with spare capacity more attractive to airlines and passengers, including the enhancement of Gatwick Airport Station and an improved rail link between London and Stansted.

The main recommendations are:

Gatwick Airport: a new runway over 3,000m in length spaced sufficiently south of existing runway to permit fully independent operation.

Heathrow Airport: two potential runway options. A new 3,500m runway constructed to the northwest of the existing airport, and spaced sufficiently to permit fully independent operation. An extension of the existing northern runway to the west lengthening it to at least 6,000m and enabling it to be operated as two separate runways: one for departures and one for arrivals.

Thames Estuary Airports: While the potential they offered to reduce aviation noise impacts in the South-east of England and to support economic development on the eastern side of London was attractive, they presented many challenges and uncertainties. They would be extremely expensive with the cost of an Isle of Grain airport around five times that of the three short-listed options at up to £112 billion.

They would present major environmental issues, especially around impacts on protected sites. The new surface access infrastructure required would be very substantial, with potential cost, deliverability and environmental challenges of its own. And the overall balance of economic impacts would be uncertain – particularly as an Estuary airport would require the closure of Heathrow for commercial reasons and London City for airspace reasons.

Stansted Airport: Its volumes have fallen in recent years, and there is considerable spare capacity, unlike at Gatwick. In addition, a large hub airport would be close to the cost of the Estuary, highly disruptive to airspace and would not present the same regeneration opportunities. Stansted may however be a plausible option for any second additional runway in the 2040s.

The commission will publish its final report in the summer of 2015, after the next General Election. The recommendations set out today will be subjected to “thorough and rigorous analysis”.

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