September 2022, Virtual
September 29 2022, Virtual
Now in its 27th year, the Business Travel Awards
Jonathan Hart investigates the complex, controversial and increasingly fraught state-of-play for UK airports
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This one will run and run, as they used to say in Fleet Street. Yes, folks, the great UK airport debate – that hardy annual pursued by newsdesks for its rapacious politics and giant leaps of faith – is once again gathering momentum.
And not for the first time it’s set to occupy acres of print and plentiful air time as it progresses, point-by-controversial-point, towards a hoped-for workable consensus in coming months and years.
The debate this time carries a heightened air of urgency, frustration and impatience – even a note of desperation from some quarters. Initiated under leaden economic skies and reputedly fast-decreasing trading opportunities, it comes with a warning from senior corporate leaders that UK Plc will slide into global insignificance without a cohesive and rapidly implemented national airport expansion policy.
They say speedy, unified aviation decision-making – sidestepped by successive governments since the 1960s – is vital if the UK is not to lose its premier international hub status to more advanced airports on the continent.
Central to the debate is the age-old issue of how best to implement increased capacity with long-haul connectivity in the overcrowded and environmentally pressured south-east.
Heathrow is already near full and all London airports will have reached capacity by 2030, according to Department for Transport (DfT) forecasts.
At the heart of all this is the question of whether to expand Heathrow, dismantle it for extra housing or reduce it to local business airport status in favour of a major new hub airport in the Thames estuary. In fuller context, the debate encompasses the future role of London and key regional airports, expansion prospects, and rail and road links.
The debate is extremely complex because it goes beyond transport requirements and environmental concerns in the short- to long-term, to impinge on a raft of sustainability issues affecting all sectors of the economy and employment patterns – as well as political and personal views across the spectrum.
These widespread implications both spur and cloud the current debate – as do a number of other factors, including ongoing reform of the economic regulation of airports under the Civil Aviation Bill, and the publication this summer of a draft Aviation Policy Framework.
These may hint at more operational freedoms and faster decision-making processes, butpolitical expediency and bureaucratic red tape are delaying much-needed action now, according to critics.
In September, the government announced an independent commission to investigate the south-east airport issues – but its final report is not due until after the next general election in 2015. “For good or ill, no big decision is going to be made for another two to three years because the government has decided it’s not going to make a change of policy at this point,” said commission chair Sir Howard Davies, former head of the Financial Services Authority.
So prepare for long-haul issues in every sense. Compiled from multiple sources, here is a round-up of the debate so far…
PURPOSETo examine the scale and timing of any requirement for additional capacity to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub, and identify and evaluate how any need for additional capacity should be met in the short, medium and long term.
STATUSThe independent commission is to be part of a process that is fair and open, and that takes account of the views of passengers and residents as well as the aviation industry, business, local and devolved government, and environmental groups.
TIMELINEInterim report to be produced no later than the end of 2013, setting out an assessment of the evidence on the nature, scale and timing of the steps needed to maintain the UK’s global hub status; and recommendation(s) for immediate actions to improve the use of existing runway capacity in the next five years, consistent with credible long-term options.
Final report to be published by the summer of 2015, containing an assessment of the options for meeting the UK’s connectivity needs, including: economic, social and environmental impact; recommendation(s) for the optimum approach to meeting any need; recommendation(s) for ensuring that the need is met as rapidly as is practicable within the required timescale; and materials to support the government in preparing a national policy statement to accelerate the resolution of any future planning application(s).
A decision on whether to support any of the recommendations contained in the final report will be taken by the next government.
(source: Department for Transport)
OPTIONS AT A GLANCE…
HEATHROWOperator/owner: Heathrow (SP) Ltd (rebranded from BAA)/Ferrovial SA
Passengers (per year): 70 million (approx)
Status: The UK’s key hub airport with more than one third of passengers in transit. Operating close to capacity. Non-24 hours. Non-mixed mode (take-off/landing from same runway) but trialled in bad weather. Expansion rejected by most politicians/all main political parties in manifestos.
Proposals: Construction go-ahead U-turn for a third (north-south) runway and/or immediate implementation of mixed mode operations. New western rail link access. Interim spillover to be shared with nearby RAF Northolt.
For: It’s the only feasible shorter-term solution, vital for the UK economy; preservation of local businesses/employment; use of modern, environmentally-friendly aircraft would reduce additional impact.
Against: Increased environmental impacts (noise/emissions) on an estimated two million people; a quick-fix solution with claims that a fourth runway would be needed immediately following a third in mid-2020s.
GATWICKOperator/owner: Gatwick Airport Ltd/Global Infrastructure Partners, which is also the owner of London City and Edinburgh airports.
Passengers: 34 million
Status: World’s busiest single-runway airport; minimal transit traffic. Independently developing long-haul business routes.
Proposals: Build second runway and/or create combined hub with Heathrow (‘Heathwick’) for up to 70 million passengers a year.
For: Capacity available with current expansion plans to handle 40 million passengers by 2021 and 45 million by 2030; additional local employment opportunities plus good existing transport links with central London to be further improved; noise reduction methods underway.
Against: Environmental lobbies. Existing local agreement/layout rules out second runway construction in short- to mid-term; implementation of Gatwick-Heathrow high-speed rail link prohibitively expensive.
STANSTEDOperator/owner: Bidding process underway following enforced sale by Heathrow (SP) Ltd (rebranded from BAA)/Ferrovial SA. Consortia bidders understood to include Manchester Airport Group (Manchester, East Midlands and Bournemouth airports), plus Morrison and Co, parent company of Infratil (Glasgow Prestwick and Manston airports).
Passengers: 19 million
Status: The UK’s fourth busiest airport serves primarily low-cost carriers (70 per cent Ryanair). Suffers from sub-standard transport links with central London, plus a recent decline in passenger growth.
Proposals: Shared hub with Heathrow or as a 24-hour stand-alone hub (as suggested by London mayor Boris Johnson).
For: Spare future capacity available; construction of a second runway already approved; possible option for more.
Against: Local residents; location north east of capital out of step with principal transit passenger demand; distance/time from Heathrow would make shared hub operations unfeasible.
LUTONOperator/owner: London Luton Airport Operations Ltd (LLAOL)/ Luton Borough Council.
Passengers: Nine million
Status: The UK’s fifth largest airport by passenger numbers.
Proposals: Shared hub with Heathrow; additional runway(s).
For: Northwest location; proximity to Heathrow; feasibility for improved rail/road links.
Against: Compact size restricts expansion; masterplan to 2031 confines it to handling maximum 18 million passengers annually.
LONDON CITYOperator/owner: Docklands Aviation Group consortium, including Global Infrastructure Partners (75 per cent) and Highstar Capital (25 per cent).
Passengers: Three million
Status: The UK’s 15th largest airport, serving mostly European/domestic destinations.It has permission to increase aircraft movements to 120,000 annually (last year saw just under 70,000), but this is subject to stringent time and noise constraints.
REGIONAL AIRPORTSBoth Birmingham and Manchester airports are included in the consultation process.
Birmingham's chief executive Paul Kehoe says the airport is the most economical answer to easing the capacity crunch in the south-east. Currently the UK’s seventh largest airport with nine million passengers annually, it has spare capacity for another nine million immediately and scope for an additional 21 million.
He says 50 per cent of the UK population is less than a two-hour drive distant. Euston is 70 minutes by rail, soon to be reduced to 59 minutes and, with HS2, to 38 minutes.
Kehoe brands a third Heathrow runway as a short-term stopgap. “An immediate solution should be to fully utilise existing capacity at airports around the UK – we should adopt a distributed model of aviation to boost economic growth around the whole of the country,” he says.
Manchester airport also wants policy-makers to avoid a London-centric ‘one size fits all’ approach. “Regional airports are facing very different challenges to capacity constrained airports,” says chief executive Charlie Cornish.
The UK’s third largest airport, with two runways and 19 million passengers annually, it feeds a vast catchment area from the Midlands northwards. It aims to make better use of its capacity to develop more long-haul services to key business markets in Asia, the US and Africa.
ESTUARY OPTIONSThree outline proposals have so far been put forward for a new four-runway airport in the Thames estuary, capable of handling up to 180 million passengers a year. They echo projects previously rejected by government for hubs in the area at Cliffe in 2003 and at Maplin Sands in the 1970s.
The latest proposals are for airports with 20- to 30-minute high-speed rail links to central London, plus motorway connections for the Midlands and the north.
One of these would be on artificial islands, similar to Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok, at Shivering Sands in Kent. It is nicknamed ‘Boris Island’ after its chief advocate, London mayor Boris Johnson.
A parallel proposal, put forward by architects Gensler, would be ‘floating’, similar to Osaka’s Kansai International, with runways anchored to the seabed and check-in terminals on land to both sides of the estuary.
The third is architect Sir Norman Foster’s Thames Hub on the edge of the Isle of Grain. This is claimed to be an integrated solution bringing together rail, freight logistics, aviation, energy and regional development.
Cost estimates for each proposal are upwards of £50 billion in construction, with estimated time scales for completion varying from 2030 onwards.
Among principal arguments in favour are:
• No other solution available for a future-proof hub
• Expansion elsewhere will prove too costly
• Contributes to regeneration as businesses and conurbations shift eastwards
• Construction costs to be borne by private investors
• Ten to 15-year phased transition period from Heathrow feasible
Among the chief arguments against are:
• Environmental impact on local residents/wildlife
• Dangers from bird strikes
• The high compensation costs of a move from Heathrow
• Resiting of 114,000 Heathrow employees
• Interference with Schiphol air space and other UK airport incoming traffic
• Costs to taxpayer for rail/motorways not sustainable
• Costs will be passed on in higher travel prices
As for public preference, 44 per cent of Londoners prefer an estuary airport option compared with 24 per cent for a third runway at Heathrow, according to a recent You Gov poll for The Sunday Times.